Cuts to All City High’s teaching and non-teaching staff amount to a self-inflicted wound for the Rochester school district, says Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers Association. All City High’s instructional staff of about 120 teachers will be cut next school year to about 64, according to current plans, Urbanski says. That doesn’t include reductions in guidance counselors and non-teaching staff, he says.
Urbanski says that the cuts follow Superintendent Bolgen Vargas touting the school as a model for his expanded learning program, and that students and teachers are just beginning to see favorable results.
"You can't judge how well a school is doing in a year," Urbanski says.
Vargas proposed All City High primarily to support students in schools being phased out and closed under former Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard. Many of the students in those schools were at risk of dropping out. All City High offered students a more flexible schedule with an infusion of extra academic and emotional support.
The cuts are attributed to low enrollment, according to a written statement from district spokesperson Chip Partner.
"All City High needs a smaller staff because of declining enrollment — from more than 1,300 students at the beginning of the school year to 870 today to a projected 500 students next year," Partner wrote.
But Urbanski calls that baffling.
“That’s not the whole story," he says. "Mid year, the district stopped accepting enrollment." No reasons were given for that decision, Urbanski says.
Some board members say they're getting calls and emails about the All City from teachers, students, and parents. And they say the superintendent's decision caught them off guard.
"Something is very inconsistent about all of this," says school board member Van White. "All along we've been asking for data on All City High, and just two weeks ago we were told everything is fine there."
But school officials say that All City High was always intended as an immediate option for students floundering or at risk of dropping out of the five schools that are being closed. The school has fulfilled that mission, officials say, and though there are no immediate plans to close All City High, Vargas says he wants to stop creating schools that are permanently in a remedial mode.
The changes at All City High have touched off a much larger concern about the district's future. Adding to a discouraged and stressed-out teaching staff, Urbanski says, is a prediction among some school and city leaders that the proliferation of charter schools will dramatically shrink the district in the near future. The district's estimates, according to one school board member, are a reduction between 10 and 20 percent, but some observers say that's the low end. Urbanski says this would be a disaster for city students and parents.
“It would exacerbate the gulf between the have’s and the have-nots,” he says.
Urbanski says he understands the difficult position Vargas is in, and says that's why Urbanski supports more innovative schools, such as parent- and teacher-led community schools. But he says that Vargas wants to convert the failing schools to parent- and teacher-led charter "conversion" schools.
"What I want to achieve is giving teachers and parents maximum autonomy and maximum accountability," Vargas said in a prepared statement. "The conversion concept holds great promise for making significant improvement in student achievement for a district that is running out of time."
Charter conversions are not like most public charter schools. They operate with some of the same autonomy, but they still function within the district, and they can have unions. A majority of the teachers in the school would have to agree to the conversion, and the Rochester school board would have to approve the change.
Charters typically are not unionized and are fully autonomous from the host district — advantages often touted by charter-school advocates.
But critics of charters say they essentially siphon off the better performing students from the host school system, leaving the district with mainly low-performing, disruptive students — those requiring more and costly special services.
“This seems counter-intuitive to put it mildly,” Urbanski says. “The goal should be to fix the broken system, not opt out of it."