The Rochester City School District is preparing for one of the most significant shifts in education history, a new plan from Gov. Andrew Cuomo that gives the state unprecedented power to take over failing schools.
The change is part of a series of sweeping reforms passed in this year’s state budget, a plan that also includes a major and controversial change to teacher evaluation systems.
Known as the Education Transformation Act of 2015, the reform is meant to improve student performance and better attract top teachers to New York. The plan—which included a $1.3 billion increase in state support for education, bringing the total to a record high of $23.5 billion—is getting attention largely for its focus on addressing failing schools.
Failing schools rank near the bottom on a list of schools across the state for test scores or graduation rates below 60 percent. After three years on the list, schools are considered failing, and after 10 years the state Education Department categorizes them as persistently failing.
In the new reform, failing schools are required to have a state-approved improvement plan that includes goals for bettering student achievement. Schools that do not show “demonstrable improvement” after the first year go into what is known as receivership, giving the school superintendent or chancellor greater power to hire and fire staff and to restructure the school.
Schools on the list for two years or more would be released from district supervision and put under control of outside receivers, entities like universities or non-profit organizations that would operate the school.
In RCSD, four schools are through the first year of the process and now have one year left to show significant improvement.
“If those schools were to fail, then the state could take over and implement radical actions that we’ve never seen before,” said Bolgen Vargas, RCSD superintendent.
The city school district has been in a similar situation. With East High School on the verge of being shut down by the state last year due to low performance rates, the district forged an agreement with the University of Rochester to keep the school open.
The school board asked UR to submit a plan to administer the district’s largest high school, and the university will take on the role of an Educational Partnership Organization, equivalent to the school’s superintendent.
But Vargas said the partnership with UR to keep East High open is different from what the state has crafted in the new set of reforms.
“We needed help from everyone with East High School, and it was the right thing to do and we thank the University of Rochester for stepping to the plate to help us, but what we needed from the university we did that voluntarily,” Vargas said. “We used that model for East High School and we still have that model available, but if we don’t make improvements in the next two years that will be up to the state.”
Vargas said the district has been aggressive in its work to improve student performance and has been focusing on central issues like attendance and grade-level reading by third grade.
He believes the results will start to show in the form of higher graduation rates, but because the focus is on earlier grades it will take time to see significant shifts.
“We’re working so hard to make sure students are showing up and focusing on early foundational skills like reading levels,” Vargas said. “We have too many students entering high school without the necessary skill set, so we are improving our early literacy program.”
The district has begun to put some measures in place, including full-day pre-kindergarten for children across the district and an expanded summer program to reduce learning loss during months away from the classroom.
Vargas is confident that the district can make improvements in its low-performing schools, but he said the system needs to be more flexible.
“The system is inflexible when it comes to my ability to work in a timely fashion, and the challenge is that our children don’t have any time to lose,” Vargas said.
State reform measures addressed other areas, including efforts to attract teachers. The budget provides funding for a new scholarship program for SUNY and CUNY schools for students who commit to teach in New York for five years.
This will help address a need that some local leaders say has become dire. Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers Association, said an RTA scholarship for a student who plans to go into teaching has gone unfilled for several years.
“No one is applying for it,” Urbanski said.
Teacher reform is another key aspect of Cuomo’s education reform. The state will require teachers to complete 100 hours of continuing education and recertify every five years to keep their license. It also will redesign the teacher evaluation system. (See related story, page 7.)
Cuomo’s education reform also offers new resources for struggling districts, including $75 million to help schools identified as failing. And in June the governor unveiled the Upstate Distressed Schools Fund, which provides additional state support to the neediest districts in the state.
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