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Vargas's bold plan for the school district

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Want to read something that will break your heart?

Sitting on my desk at work is a hefty group of reports collected over the years, including numerous ones produced by the Rochester school district. Among them is a survey of initiatives designed to provide a better education for the district's poorest, African American children: a new school, reduced class sizes, reading specialists, a school-choice transfer program, expansion of the Urban-Suburban program, better cooperation with community agencies, upgrading school facilities, a school on a university campus that accepted Rochester students....

Want to know when that report was written?

1969.

Since then, the city's poverty rate has increased. The number of schools with predominantly poor African American or Hispanic children has skyrocketed. The drop-out rate is way up. Student achievement rates are in the toilet.

We've tried one reform after another, cycled through one superintendent after another, cycled through numerous school boards. And things have only gotten worse.

I have to admit: when I first heard about Superintendent Bolgen Vargas's plan to have colleges and universities manage some Rochester schools, I reacted the way many critics did. Here we go again.

Why does Vargas think a university could do a better job than experienced district staff? And why did he float the idea publicly before he had a single university president signing on?

But after an hour and a half with Vargas, I've changed my mind. We ought to do this.

Clearly, the district's primary problem is its high concentration of poverty. Teachers and principals cannot, by themselves, counter the forces that that poverty creates in students' neighborhoods and home lives. But the district can do a better job than it's doing. Standing in the way: a bureaucratic culture that Vargas calls "overwhelming."

In his discussion with us last week – reported at length in this issue – Vargas was adamant: poverty is no excuse for failing to do things like track student absences.

Vargas ticked off example after example of bureaucratic resistance and apathy: classes in which attendance is seldom taken, textbooks that don't get delivered to the right classroom. An internal audit conducted when Jean-Claude Brizard was superintendent found similar problems in the administrative offices: checks written to vendors before payment was authorized, poor tracking of teacher absences, failure to make sure that new technology was compatible with the district's existing equipment.

In his discussion with us, Vargas wasn't placing blame. And you can see how, particularly in a large district, this kind of culture can take root and grow. Nor does it help when state and federal officials create an atmosphere of hostility, belittling teachers and principals who, in Vargas's words, "struggle every day to do extraordinary things under difficult circumstances."

But school district leaders can be supportive and, at the same time, have accountability.

Vargas's college takeover plan isn't a miracle cure. It won't affect the concentrated poverty that so burdens the district. And there will be resistance to changing the district's bureaucratic culture. But that culture has to change. And having institutions from outside the district step in – institutions with experience in management – can help. They don't have the resources to take over more than a few of the district's 60-plus schools. But they can set an example by cutting through the bureaucracy and injecting stronger accountability at those few. That will help the children in those schools. It can lead to changes throughout the district. And it can help restore public faith in the district.

This district needs help, and Vargas is asking for it. It would be unconscionable for area colleges and universities to refuse him. The "partnership" programs that some of the institutions have with the district are important, but they're not enough.

The presidents of every one of the region's colleges and universities ought to be on the phone this week, setting an appointment with Vargas. And the presidents of the two biggest private institutions, the University of Rochester and the Rochester Institute of Technology, ought to be first in line.

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