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Skepticism greets big East promises

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Bill Cala, a former interim superintendent for the Rochester City School District, says a claim that East High's graduation rate can be raised to 100 percent in a matter of a few years is ludicrous.

And he's not the only skeptic.

Though a decision on School Turnaround's proposal to partner with the failing East High School is still pending, there are numerous questions and some skepticism about the proposal.

The State Education Department has ordered Rochester schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas to come up with a plan to fix East by May 15. One of the permitted options is to find an educational partner organization, such as School Turnaround, to take over the school.

School Turnaround, an affiliate of Rennselaerville Institute, specializes in improving failing schools. East's four-year graduation rate was 33.7 percent for the 2011-2012 school year, according to the State Education Department's website. Less than 2 percent of East's students graduated with an advanced Regents diploma that year.

Cala says any plan to rehabilitate East needs to take into account the school's current reality. Many of East's students enter ninth grade with low proficiency in math and English, he says, yet they'll have to pass five Regents exams to graduate.

But Turnaround has promised that, if hired, 100 percent of East's students will graduate and they will be ready for college. The changes would take place, the organization says, over a couple of years.

Reacting with caution to those promises, the school board committee that screened Turnaround's proposal has sent more than 50 questions to the organization's senior management. The committee has also invited company representatives to come to Rochester this week to present the proposal in person.

The school board has also asked Vargas to come up an alternate plan to Turnaround's proposal by early May.

Under Turnaround's proposal, East's student population would be reduced from about 1,800 students to 1,000. East's current principal, Anibal Soler, would be replaced with a principal trained in Turnaround's methods. East's teachers would have to reapply for their jobs.

The school board's screening committee members want to know what criteria would be used to select the students at East, and what would happen to the other 800 students. They want to know what would happen to the teachers who don't get rehired? And how would Turnaround work within the parameters of the district's current labor agreement?

The contracts can be renegotiated, says Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers Association. But they can't be nullified.

"The superintendent and I had this conversation, and the contracts would continue to apply," Urbanski says. "A group can't just come in and do whatever they want."

The education policies of the Bush and Obama administrations have helped create a cottage industry of businesses and nonprofits that claim they can fix failing school systems.

But it's an extremely difficult job, and reports show that many efforts end in failure. So clarifying the terms of proposals and how goals will be achieved is important.

Turnaround's approach is based on a management technique called the Logic Model Theory of Change. The concept, which was developed in the 1970's, borrows from behavioral psychology and was popular among professionals working with developmentally disabled children and adults.

Planners work backward with the end goal in mind, and they have to determine precisely what activity is needed and when to achieve a desired outcome. The approach relies heavily on frequent assessments and interventions.

Former Rochester schools Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard said in a recent phone interview that while he believes East can improve, that changes need to be made slowly and selectively.

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