Student behavior: Vargas dares to go there


When Rochester schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas presented his proposal for college-run schools last week, it was just one piece of a larger package of steps needed, he said, to improve student achievement.

The full pac
RCSD Superintendent Bolgen Vargas. - FILE PHOTO.
  • File photo.
  • RCSD Superintendent Bolgen Vargas.
kage includes improving financial management to reduce the hand-wringing over budget gaps; working with BOCES to  revive  a technical careers program for students interested in fields like auto repair, HVAC, and  plumbing; eliminating the summer reading loss by offering more summer reading development programs; and improving student behavior.

While college-run schools grabbed the most attention, improving student behavior may be more imperative. And it could be even more difficult to pull off.

RCSD teachers and principals have struggled for years with large numbers of students who are disruptive and disengaged. And many teachers and principals say that discipline is enforced inconsistently and that they receive little support from some parents and the administration.

In a recent meeting with parents, one district father told Vargas that he had no choice but to withdraw his child from a city school after he visited the school during lunch time. Most of the cafeteria staff was breaking up fights, he said. The experience convinced him, he said, to place his child in a different school system.

It was obviously not the first time Vargas heard a parent say this. Parents report seeing students roaming the halls in some schools. Last year a group of residents near East High School said they were fed up with students using marijuana on their way to and from school — leaving their trash behind in the neighborhood. 

And a gun was fired recently on East Main Street while a large group of students gathered near the Liberty Pole. These often-disruptive gatherings have prompted much community discussion. And after the gunfire incident — no one was injured — a frustrated Mayor Tom Richards pressed Vargas to find a solution. 

The most recent incident report, a record of student behavior issues that are reported to the state, lists thousands of infractions. The district has tried to manage student misconduct through various levels of discipline with the most severe being out-of-school suspension.

But not only is the district’s suspension rate infamously high, it also appears that black and Latino males are disproportionately singled out for suspension. The end result, research shows, is a lower graduation rate for black and Latino male students.

Vargas said in his recent proposal that he wants to engage a community task force to develop a shared vision of how to improve student behavior. But that won’t be easy. Vargas isn’t the first superintendent to recognize the problem.

As a community, there is a tendency to view city students through an emotional lens due to the hardships caused by poverty, isolation, and institutional racism. And there is also a tendency to go easy on low-income parents to the point where behavior problems become everyone’s responsibility and no one’s responsibility.

Even some school board members challenge the notion that higher academic expectation of students requires higher behavior standards, too.

Vargas said that poor student behavior is an indication that students’ needs are not being met. Students who enjoy school tend to have fewer behavior problems, he said.

But that’s only part of the problem. There’s no question that a rich and stimulating school environment can go a long way to improving achievement among students from impoverished homes and neighborhoods.

We also know that children of low-income parents who are caring, dutiful, and have high academic standards are more likely to respect their teachers, stay in school, and graduate. When we don’t recognize that even the most financially disadvantaged parents can still have a positive influence on their children’s behavior, we undermine them and their children’s future.