Joseph Klein remembers when he first came across the problem.
The chairman and CEO of Klein Steel Service Inc., Klein would hire employees from the city of Rochester but found that many had difficulty reading. Klein brought literacy volunteers into the company, but as the machinery grew increasingly automated, that was not enough to meet the need.
So Klein turned his focus in a new direction, devoting himself to improving education in the city of Rochester. It is a mission that has today led Klein to found E3 Rochester Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to attracting high-performing charter schools to the city.
The organization already has recruited two new schools opening in the fall—PUC Achieve Charter School and Vertus Charter School. E3 Rochester also is supporting the launch of Renaissance Academy of the Arts.
Klein hopes to see more growth.
“Our mission is that every child in the city of Rochester can go to a quality school and a get a rigorous education that will prepare them for success in college, career and life while also meeting their social and emotional needs,” Klein said.
The effort has attracted the support of other local business leaders. The board of directors includes Daniel Burns, regional president of M&T Bank Corp.; Richard Kaplan, CEO and director of Torvec Inc.; and Albert Simone, president emeritus of Rochester Institute of Technology.
Klein said everyone involved is motivated by a deep desire to improve education for local students.
Dale Twardokus, an E3 board member and vice president of Victor Excavating Inc., said the problem of education in the city is something everyone must address.
“We are currently experiencing a shortage of qualified employees for new positions,” he noted. “I foresee this shortfall of qualified workers getting much worse before it gets better.
“We as a community, especially the business community, need to increase the number of educated children to assist in meeting this shortfall. E3 Rochester and charter schools are one great solution.”
James Brush, president and CEO of Sentry Group, said the charter schools mission has support from people in business because of the high level of accountability these schools have. Brush, who also serves on the E3 board, said an increase in charter schools can improve all education in the city.
“Businesspeople understand that in any field of human endeavor there must be accountability and that without it results will be sub-optimized,” he said. “Charter schools bring this and have a proven record of success where they have replaced existing failing schools in other cities.”
E3 vice chairman Bryan Hickman said the group has sought support from business and community groups but found that success is the best way to get more people on board.
“Early on, a lot of people viewed this idea as a pipe dream, so we thought, ‘We have to go out and just do it,’” he said. “Our hope is that as these schools have success, it will build and so many people will join on that eventually the broader community will take on this project as their own.”
Looking for the best
It is a mission deeply personal to Klein, who in 2006 turned over the day-to-day operation of his company to devote himself to educational reform. He served as chairman of then-Mayor Robert Duffy’s Commission on Literacy from 2007 to 2010 and later became a founding board member of the True North Rochester Preparatory Charter School.
In 2011, Klein left the area and earned a master’s degree in education and policy management from Harvard University. After talking with professors and advisers from national think tanks, Klein said, he asked where he could make the most difference.
“They all told me the same thing: Go back to Rochester,” Klein noted.
Klein wants more charter schools in Rochester, but only the right ones.
E3 has laid out its strategy, which is both aggressive in seeking out new high-performing schools as well as measured when evaluating. The organization has several criteria for candidates, requiring they have a rigorous academic focus and a record of success in math and English/language arts.
The schools must also stand by their students, Klein said.
“There are some charters across the country where if a kid is really struggling, they will counsel them out,” he noted. “We can’t have that. And in fact at Rochester Prep, the more a kid struggled, the more resources we put into them.”
Klein is full of anecdotes about this idea in action at charter schools in Rochester. He remembers a boy who was once known as a troublemaker and enjoyed flouting the rules, but turned himself around after years in a supportive but strongly disciplined environment.
“He still wanted to rebel a bit, but now instead of acting out in class or getting into fights, he was doing it by wearing dark sneakers instead of shoes,” Klein said.
Charter schools must also have strong behavioral policies, Klein said, and must take students who are representative of the district.
The organization is looking for new ways to improve student focus and classroom behavior. Klein—who with Hickman travels frequently to visit charter school nationwide and attend conferences—recently came across an idea known as “calm classroom.”
This idea uses breathing techniques and deep focus to help students regulate emotion and avoid conflict, Klein said, and it has shown great results in Chicago.
Financial considerations are also important when looking at new schools, Klein said. Charter schools receive less funding per student than schools within the Rochester City School District, so E3 seeks out those with a record of operating on a strong financial basis.
Ultimately E3 is seeking only the best charter schools, Klein said, those with a proven record of performance. On its mission page, the non-profit organization notes that even in a disadvantaged urban district, a high-performing charter school will equal or outperform suburban schools in test scores and graduation rates, dropout rates and overall readiness for college and career.
Students who enter the charter school are expected to close the achievement gap with their suburban peers in three to five years.
“This is not a next-generation solution,” the organization notes. “We’re looking for the big win NOW.”
The organization also is looking to get as many students as possible into charters. Klein noted that both PUC and Vertus are seeking students and have reached a period of open enrollment.
Klein sees a good model in New Orleans, which before Hurricane Katrina was considered to have one of the nation’s worst school systems.
“Several of their valedictorians were illiterate,” Klein said. “But now, after Katrina, they have 90 percent of students in charter schools, and they’ve turned it around and have a higher graduation rate than the state as a whole.
“And the average charter school in New Orleans isn’t even that good comparatively,” Klein added. “The ones that we’re bringing to Rochester are among the best in the country.”
Klein said he would like to see Rochester make a similar turnaround. E3 envisions Rochester becoming the most literate city in America and students in the city closing the gap with the highest-performing suburban districts in Monroe County.
Attracting the best charter schools would also mean attracting the nation’s best teachers and administrators, Klein noted, which was also a side effect in New Orleans.
But Klein admits that fulfilling E3’s mission will mean facing challenges. The organization remains small, with just one staff member and its offices inside Klein Steel’s building in Rochester.
“There have been a lot of missteps, and we don’t have funding for a proper staff, so everything is done in a rush,” Klein said.
He said the organization is seeking more funding and ideally would find an experienced person to take over day-to-day operations.
“Someone who runs a business is not necessarily the best person to run a non-profit,” Klein admitted.
There have also been critics of E3’s approach, Klein noted.
“There are people who think we’re moving too fast and don’t agree with what we’re doing or how we’re doing it, but we have a vibrant board and such dedicated volunteers,” he said.
Ultimately, Klein said, he is “agnostic” about how to improve education in the city of Rochester.
He believes students deserve a high-quality education, wherever that might be. But the growth of charters means that students have been siphoned out of public schools, a trend that has the attention of district leaders.
Bolgen Vargas, superintendent of city schools, said the district does all it can to learn from charters. A push to extend in-classroom learning time in the district can be traced to an idea prevalent in many charter schools, which extend both the school day and the school year.
Vargas said the district needs to have strong working relationships with charters—the district already provides busing and other ancillary services—but also says these schools are pushing the district to improve.
“How we view charters is important, and we need to position the district so that parents don’t need to look elsewhere,” Vargas said.
The stakes are high for his district, Vargas said. The extent to which the Rochester City School District continues to struggle with student outcomes will have a direct effect on the number of students in the district, he noted. As charter schools rise, the number of students in district schools will decline, as will the resources the district has at its disposal.
This dynamic is motivating the district’s push to improve student outcomes, Vargas said.
“If we work together as a district, where we already have the resources and highly trained teachers and administrators, and if we can create systems that are more flexible, we can definitely improve,” he said.
The idea behind charter schools is that they would serve as incubators for public schools, generating alternatives that could then be replicated within their district counterparts. But in reality that level of sharing best practices has not happened, said Van White, RCSD board president.
“What’s happened is they have become alternatives for traditional public schools,” White said. “I suppose there’s enough blame to go around, but the charter schools I don’t think are driven by a desire to share best practices. I think the successful ones have replicated their own success in starting their charters, but I don’t see them saying to the district, ‘Let’s do this in your schools.’”
But charter schools have been successful in other ways, White noted, including by creating a competitive marketplace where all schools are driven to deliver better services.
“The creation of charter schools at the very least has an environment where we understand we will work our way to irrelevancy if we don’t start getting better outcomes,” White said.
He said he hopes charter schools can eventually push the district to replicate its own successes. He points to School of the Arts, which has graduated students at four-year cohort rates similar to those of suburban districts.
Charter schools have now taken the lead in replicating the school’s model, White said, and he wants the district to do the same.
While Klein acknowledges that dysfunction in the district has pushed more families to seek out charter schools, he said all those involved in improving education in the city are driven by the same goal.
“To have a city where our kids aren’t learning to read is so distressing on so many levels,” Klein said. “We are depriving these kids of the American dream.”
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