In a little over a month, the University of Rochester will be handed the keys, so to speak, to East High School. The State Education Department approved the UR-East deal last year in an attempt to turn around one of the state's lowest performing schools.
There are few delusions about East. The school — with its mix of low attendance, high suspensions, and anemic graduation rate — was on the path to closure had the UR not stepped in.
And the stakes are high. If the UR is successful, it could be a milestone in urban education. If it fails, there will be a lot of "I told you so's." But worse, hope for failing urban schools such as East will suffer a huge blow.
Steve Uebbing, a professor at the UR Warner School of Education, is East's superintendent and has overseen months of planning for the school's reinvention. East has been reorganized into a Lower School for grades 6-8 and an Upper School for grades 9-12.
Teachers and staff are critical, he said, to one of the UR's key strategies: making East feel and function like a smaller, more personal school instead of the city's largest where students can get lost.
Teachers and staff all had to reapply for their jobs.
Uebbing said that he had 550 applications for 195 teaching and 16 administrator jobs. His team conducted 350 teacher interviews, often involving classroom observations. And they made over 400 reference checks.
More than 80 of the teachers hired are rehires from East and another 65 are teachers from the city school district.
In a recent interview, Uebbing said that interviewing and hiring so many teachers at once was challenging.
"We aren't set up for that sort of thing," he said.
He also talked about the expectations that people have about education reform, even though there are few models of success in New York's urban districts, and how he'll know that East is moving in the right direction.
The following is an edited version of that conversation.
CITY: Were you surprised by the number of teachers who applied at East considering that this is a bit of a gamble?
Uebbing: No. I wasn't surprised. I found it curious that there were very few applicants from outside Rochester. Most of them were Rochester City School District teachers. Some were charter teachers, and a very small number were suburban and out-of-state teachers.
In most reform initiatives, people assume that you get rid of all the old teachers and administrators and get a new bunch. But people are erroneous to assume that there are legions of talented educators who want to work in an urban setting.
There are qualified people out there, don't get me wrong. But the notion that you can just replace them is wrong.
Also, the teachers we interviewed were very competent and confident teachers — not all of them, but the majority. So the idea that all you need to do is simply get the right teacher in there is wrong. (US Secretary of Education) Arne Duncan says every student should have a great teacher. But great is the top 1 percent or 2 percent, isn't it? Can everybody be great all of the time?
Every student deserves a competent and caring teacher — that I agree with. But greatness is a pretty tough expectation.
What were the qualifications and characteristics that you were looking for in applicants?
They had to be "all in." That was the most important thing. They had to be teachers who are willing to come to work every day and do whatever is necessary to be successful. And they had to be able to articulate that in writing an "all in" statement.
Second, they had to be willing to look at their own practice and redevelop it. They can't come in with the standard, "This is what I do, take it or leave it."
They have to come in with the attitude that, "I think I have some things to bring to the table, but I want to see what I can learn and how I can develop, too."
How will the new East High be different from the old?
Every student will be part of a small families group made up of about 10 kids, and they'll be supervised and supported as they deal with daily issues like financial problems.
I don't know how many suspensions East will have next year. It was up around 1,600 not that long ago. We'll see suspension as a highly undesirable action, and instead we're going to be working with kids to develop their own problem-solving and conflict-resolution skills.
And kids in grades 6, 7, 8, 9 are all going to have double math and English periods that will be 72 minutes long.
Are you concerned that people may think that you're hiring some of the same teachers who helped make East a failing school in the first place?
That premise is not true.
We don't blame teachers or anybody for the current situation. We do blame longstanding systematic, social, and economic issues. But we can't fix all of that stuff. What we can work on are education and social-emotional issues.
Was there another turnaround program or school model you used in planning for East?
We asked state [officials] if they had something that they saw as exemplar. And they had this long kind of pause, and said, "We were kind of hoping that you would have something exemplar."
Then I asked them for a list of schools that had at least 75 percent graduation rate and at least 75 percent free and reduced lunch rate that were urban schools. And they found one school.
When will you know that East has turned the corner or is at least making progress?
The first thing for me would be breaking 90 percent attendance rate continuously. That's a benchmark. I guarantee you that most districts in the suburbs on the first day will have over 95 percent attendance. The kids can't wait to get back to school.
We didn't make 80 percent [average attendance] — 22 percent of the kids were missing. And there are a lot of reasons for that, one being that it hasn't been a place where kids feel successful and happy.