New York State Exposed Education: What's next for some struggling city schools?

Updated: 05/15/2014 7:44 PM
Created: 05/15/2014 7:24 AM WHEC.com
By: Berkeley Brean

News10NBC wanted to know if there are other city schools in a similar situation as East High School. Three schools could face the same fate next year.

East High School’s attendance rate is 82 percent. There are 12 city high schools including Charlotte, Marshall and the schools at Edison that have worse attendance rates. Some are as low as 72 percent.

East High's graduation rate is 42 percent. There are six other high schools including All City High, Freddie Thomas and the schools at Franklin that are worse than that. One is at 33 percent.

Dr. Bolgen Vargas, Superintendent, RCSD, said, “East High School is a warning to us that we need rapid improvement and that we need to make progress in the very near future.”

One high school with worse numbers than East in both categories is Monroe High. 

Attendance there is at 78 percent. The graduation rate is 29 percent. Imagine being a Monroe High parent and hearing those numbers. Anthony Sidoti was waiting outside the school to pick up his son, Brody. 

Anthony Sidoti, Monroe High School parent, said, “Just going to get worse here. It's not going to get any better.”

So why did East get punished by the state and not schools with worse numbers? It's because East is at the end of its five year probation period. The other schools still have some years to improve. 

There are three city schools whose time is up next year. One is a high school. In 2015, they’re on track to be closed or changed by the state. The school board says the schools are in the pipeline. So News10NBC asked which ones? School leaders won’t say. 

Van White, Rochester City School Board President, said, “There's an important point here, Berkeley. We're not prepared to say exactly what we're going to do to those schools.  So it would be unfair in my mind to identify those schools because people would hear, ‘Oh my God, my school is in the pipeline.’”

Vargas said, “I don't want to guess at that because my expectation is that our students are going to do much better this June.”

Superintendent Bolgen Vargas says on average 3,000 students are absent every day. 

Vargas said, “You have seen me going door to door. If we don't improve attendance, that list is not going to change.”

So how did we get to where we are?

White said, “I think people weren't paying attention to the finish line. I think people weren't looking in the pipeline.  I think what happens in urban districts, quite frankly, is expectations are lowered for a whole host of reasons.  Well, the kids are poor or there's racism and when that happens, the bar gets lowered. Then it gets lowered again. Before you know it, two decades have passed and the bar is way down here.”

So how do you raise the bar? You could start at a place some see as an oasis. It is a publicly funded school in the city. Some people might look at that and think it's a little militaristic. 

Anna Hall, Uncommon Schools Rochester, said, “I wouldn't call it militaristic. I would call it structured.”

The Rochester City School District released a statement saying, “The District is working with a strong sense of urgency to improve student achievement. The state will assess results from the current school year before considering action against another school. Until this year’s results can be analyzed, it is premature to speculate that one or more schools may face a directive similar to East High.”

Uncommon Schools

News10NBC went to a school in the city with some of the same social problems including significant poverty, but this is what we saw.

It's a school funded by tax dollars in a tough part of the city. More than 80 percent of the students are considered poor, but 97 percent of them show up to class. 

So how do they do it?

Anna Hall, Uncommon Schools, said, "We make attendance calls everyday before 8:30 a.m. So if you're not here, your child isn't here, we're going to give you a phone call."

Anna Hall is the Chief Operating Officer for Uncommon Schools. It runs Rochester Prep Charter School on Maple Street near Ames Street. Things there are different. Even in something as simple as what happens when students change class. It's quiet. The students stand, clutching their books to their body and wait for others to walk out of class. They literally toe the line in the hallway following marked routes. Then they are greeted by their teacher as they enter the room. 

You could say it looks almost militaristic, but Hall says, "I wouldn't call it militaristic. I would call it structured and we believe that every person, both student and adult, learns best in an orderly environment."

There is a heavy emphasis on reading in kindergarten. That is something that impresses Paul Bailey, whose son Kimani attends the school. 

Bailey said, "It's awesome. The teachers are great with the kids. Their way of teaching them, it is different."

Charter schools are licensed by the state, but your taxpayer dollars pay for the students' education, just like students in any public school. The average cost per student in the city district school is $20,000. The average cost at Rochester Prep is $13,000.

Superintendent Bolgen Vargas is trying to mirror some of the charter school rules.

Vargas said, "They have more flexibility. They're also giving the students more academic support because they have more time."

Students in the city school district are in class for 180 days, but charter schools go up to 200 days. News10NBC looked at the test scores for Rochester Prep. Few, if any, students are scoring as proficient in English and math, but the charter schools say, in New York State, four out of five charter schools perform better in tests than the district schools where they're located. That's hope for parents like Paul Bailey and his son.

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