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Vargas wants area colleges to take over Rochester city schools


Rochester city schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas says he wants as many schools as possible to eventually be under the full management of Rochester-area colleges. He says that he wants at least one school to be under a college's management by 2015. Vargas made several far-reaching proposals tonight to members of the school board. 

Vargas appeared before the Excellence in Student Achievement Committee with a plan containing several proposals to dramatically improve student achievement. The proposals are both innovative and controversial. 

Vargas prefaced his proposal concerning the colleges by conceding that the district is having difficulty managing so many low-performing schools at one time. 
.RCSD Superintendent Bolgen Vargas. - FILE PHOTO.
  • File photo.
  • .RCSD Superintendent Bolgen Vargas.

College leadership would have all of the supervision powers of the superintendent, Vargas said. Funding would follow each student and go to the college, but students would remain enrolled in the city school district. Vargas said that he would like to "have as many schools under college supervision as possible." 

He gave no indication of which schools he'd like the colleges to take over. And he didn't say if colleges are waiting in the wings to carry this out. But Vargas has been talking with the heads of area colleges and there is some interest in the idea, says district spokesperson Chip Partner. 

Other proposals include revitalizing the district's Careers in Technology program with BOCES. While the district has been working at providing more opportunities for students in ares such as the arts, music, and sports, Vargas said that many students say they want to participate in programs that the district isn't offering. 

Students who want to pursue careers as electricians, plumbers, HVAC specialists, auto-repair technicians, and cosmetologists will be able to attend BOCES for the programs if the district isn't offering something similar, Vargas said. 

Vargas also proposed a community-wide approach to improving student behavior. The district's unusually high suspension rate has been a controversial subject for years. The district shifted away from a student conduct policy that strongly encouraged outside suspensions because many students were missing weeks of instruction. In-house suspensions were supposed to deliver the appropriate level of punishment while keeping students in school receiving instruction in special classrooms. 

But some school board members had questioned the effectiveness of the conduct policy — whether it unfairly targets African-American boys, and if the standards for good conduct have been fairly assessed. 

Vargas also proposed a five-year plan to eliminate the structural problems with the district's finances. Budget battles create winners and losers, he said, and cause instability in school communities. 

And Vargas proposed eliminating summer learning loss for K-3 students by greatly increasing summer reading program opportunities. 

All city school board members were present tonight except Willa Powell. Most board members complimented Vargas for introducing the proposals, which include ideas they said they've been discussing for several years. Board vice president Van White seemed especially enthusiastic about the college management proposal. 

But there are questions about how it would work. Vargas said that some districts around the country, including New York City and Buffalo, have turned to colleges for management. And he said that Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers Association, supports the idea, at least conceptually. 

The colleges would have to honor RTA  contracts, but a mechanism in the current contract allows for changes to be negotiated by the colleges. 

But some of the biggest concerns by board members involved the proposal for a community-wide discussion about improving student behavior. Vargas proposed creating a task force to engage the community with the goal of coming up with a shared vision for expectations of students and proper school conduct. 

Vargas said that the recent gathering of students at the Liberty Pole downtown that included a gun being fired was a clear indication that improvement in student behavior is needed. But it was less clear whether board members agreed. 

Throughout the presentation, Vargas said that the proposals would require a re-examination of the district's budget priorities and a shifting of funds. He said that declining enrollment would require staffing adjustments in central office administration, but he did not elaborate. 

Vargas said several times that the need to improve student achievement is urgent, and that the district is facing its last chance to turn around.