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City schools are moving toward strategic goals

It has been nearly three years since my first day as superintendent of schools in Rochester. Prior to my arrival we conducted an exhaustive review of the district’s teaching and learning framework, highlighting the lack of continuity. State testing data, graduation rates and even law enforcement data demonstrated marginal district performance. Large performance gaps existed between subgroups including students of color, economically disadvantaged students and non-English speakers, and we discovered extremely high classification rates of students with special needs. We also highlighted a systemic lack of urgency to resolve the barriers that hampered student success.

We have focused the work of improving schools on three main pillars: great schools, great teachers and leaders, and a great curriculum. In 2009-10, we published a five-year strategic plan formally documenting a change agenda focused on improving the graduation rate and college readiness for students while closing the achievement gaps between subgroups.

The curriculum used in our schools (the Rochester Curriculum) was developed by our own teachers, not by national textbook publishers. Developed over the last two years, it is an online resource that offers teachers flexibility to provide different, high-quality learning opportunities for different students, including English language learners and students with disabilities. It provides a common language for innovative, student-centered and resource-rich instruction across all schools. It may become a model for New York in its Race to the Top work.

Our human capital work focuses on creating an evaluation system that uses quantitative growth models and qualitative observation data for teachers and principals to drive accountability at the classroom and school level.

This will establish a record of practice for individual teachers, principals, schools and the district, and will provide data to inform systemic improvement. It will also drive a differentiated compensation system for teachers and principals. The new merit-based system will replace an existing system that uses "bands" and "steps" based on an individual’s college credits and years of service to determine compensation.

As a state, New York must have the courage to get rid of laws that promote seniority over performance during layoffs. "Last-come, first-out" laws must be abolished in education. No other profession behaves this way.

Despite more stringent high school graduation requirements, the RCSD class of 2009 was the largest graduating class in the last five years. A total of 1,334 students graduated in four years, an increase of 16 percent. We are keeping more students in school than ever before.

This larger denominator, while showing a dramatic increase in the number of students graduating, translated into a lower graduation-rate percentage (46 percent for 2009 compared with 52 percent for 2008) that overshadowed the increase. However, we expect that once released by the state, our four-year graduation rate for 2010 again will be at or above 50 percent-a potential increase of 12 percentage points in three years.

In addition, the number of students earning a Regents diploma increased by 15 percent in 2009 to a record 739 students, an important factor as the state phases out the less-challenging local diploma.

Time on task is critical. The average charter school opens seven to eight hours a day. We open on average 5.5 hours. Charter schools open nearly 11 months a year. We max out at 185 days. One of our earliest strategies to increase time on task was to institute an in-school suspension program. In addition to keeping students in school and learning, a tremendous side effect was a radical decrease in the number of suspensions. Just a few years ago, we averaged more than 15,000 suspensions per year. During my tenure, short-term suspensions have decreased more than 57 percent to 3,952 in 2009-10.

We are taking a strategic approach to reporting our progress in these and other areas. This will be enhanced as we develop departmental and district-level scorecards. The Balanced Scorecard Management System balances strategic objectives among four perspectives: operating excellence, internal processes, stakeholder satisfaction and student achievement.

Student achievement is improving, as indicated by more students graduating, more staying in school and fewer incorrectly classified as needing special education services. Costs are going down, processes are being simplified and communication is improving. Through the development and use of strategic management tools, employees have a better idea about where the organization is going, how we are doing and what can be done to create transformational change to better serve the students of Rochester.

On Jan. 20, we will present to the community an update on our progress toward the goals in our strategic plan. I invite you to join us at School of the Arts, 45 Prince St., at 6:30 p.m.

Jean-Claude Brizard is Rochester superintendent of schools.

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