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Can anyone 'turn around' a Rochester high school?



I should be encouraged, I guess, that the University of Rochester is willing to consider becoming involved in the operations of East High School. I've been hopeful that local colleges and universities would try to help improve city schools, so if the UR interest pans out, that would be a good first step.

But I'm not optimistic that the UR can work miracles at East. Intervening at the junior-senior high level is way too late.

In the 2012-2013 school year, only 2 percent of East's seventh graders were "proficient" in English Language Arts; only 1 percent in math. ("Proficient" to the state education department means meeting the state's standards for that grade level.) In eighth grade, 3 percent were proficient in ELA, and 0 percent (yes, 0 percent) were proficient in math.

We can pretty much predict what kind of future is ahead for the non-proficient students. District officials have pulled together data showing what happened over four years to the students who took the 8th grade ELA and math tests in 2009. Only 13 percent of those who scored at the bottom on the tests graduated in four years. Seventy-six percent of those scoring at the second highest level ("proficient") and 94 percent of those who scored at the top level ("excels") graduated four years later.

But why did students do so poorly on those seventh and eighth-grade tests? The faculty didn't suck out the knowledge that the seventh graders had when they arrived at East. The plain truth is that the students weren't ready to start seventh grade. They had gone through elementary school without learning enough to go to high school.

And if you need proof, here it is: The combined average of all of the district's students proficient in those two subjects in third through eighth grade was only 5 percent.

How do students get to third, fourth, fifth grade and beyond without knowing more than they do? Obviously they're being promoted from grade to grade when they're not ready. And underlying all this, of course, is that many Rochester children don't have the language and social skills they need to even start kindergarten.

If we don't deal with these issues at the earlier stages, we can turn every single school over to outside agencies and still fail. This doesn't negate the importance of having the UR involved with a city school. I just wish the involvement would start at an elementary school.

Letting us pray

Given the composition of the present Supreme Court, I wasn't surprised at last week's ruling approving of prayers at Greece Town Board meetings. The justices seem so clearly divided along ideological lines that it's a surprise when a ruling doesn't come out the way we feared.

It hasn't always been like this, Adam Liptak noted in the New York Times on Sunday. Ideology has played a stronger role in presidents' court nominations recently than it once did. Gerald Ford, for instance, nominated the liberal John Paul Stevens.

But the court is now as sharply divided as the nation is, Liptak wrote, and that's not likely to change any time soon.

That spells trouble in many areas, including religion's growing influence on national policy. The court's ruling on the Greece case shows us what could lie ahead.

Nationally, more liberal, inclusive thought is winning on same-sex marriage, but it doesn't take much imagination to think of areas in which the Supreme Court could help the religious right determine public policy: education, the arts, health care, foreign policy, criminal justice....

In their ruling on the Greece case, some of the justices implied that for the Town Board to invite clergy to open meetings with prayer is no big deal. But it is a big deal. And I don't like where it may lead us.

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