Impressive test scores and a friendship between two influential people led to Rochester Prep High School landing a $250,000 grant from KeyBank Foundation.
“The students here do so well, and that impressed me,” said James Barger, KeyBank’s Rochester market executive, who learned about the charter school from one of its founding trustees, Jean Howard. She worked for former mayor Robert Duffy and helped establish the Rochester Education and Literacy Commission.
Barger, in turn, approached KeyBank Foundation, suggesting it support the charter school network, which focuses on preparing students for success in college.
On Monday, Howard brought Barger and Margot Copeland, chairwoman and CEO of KeyBank Foundation, to tour the high school, at 175 Martin St. Now three years old, the high school launched when the first Rochester Prep Middle School students graduated eighth grade. It now has 203 students in grades 9-11.
Started as a middle school, Rochester Prep also has expanded into the lower grades and now includes three elementary schools. None of the schools charge tuition. All receive state per-pupil funding and are considered public schools, though they are run by a private board of trustees.
Rochester area students apply and are accepted into the schools by lottery, and more than 85 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.
Ninety-eight percent are either African American and/or Hispanic. Preference is given to city residents, though some students come from surrounding towns, school officials said.
The $250,000 grant from KeyBank will be spread over the next five years and will allow the high school to expand its College Access and Success Program, which provides students with coaching to succeed on the SAT, help writing college application essays and finding the right colleges.
Students at the high school are required to take Advanced Placement classes and encouraged to build academic resumes that will make them attractive to colleges.
While Rochester Prep has yet to graduate its first high school class—that is to come next year—they are part of the Uncommon Schools network, which has high schools in other Northeastern cities that operate on a similar model, helping disadvantaged students get into and succeed in college. Uncommon Schools reports 82 percent of its high school graduates are either enrolled in college or have successfully completed four-year degrees inthe last six years.
The test results Barger saw were from state proficiency exams, on which Rochester Prep youngsters scored above state averages and on par with many suburban districts.
Getting into Rochester Prep has become difficult, school officials note. This year, there are about 2,400 applicants across all grade levels vying for 360 spots available at the three elementary schools and two middle schools that are part of Rochester Prep. Unless an existing student leaves, there will be no available slots at the high school as the eighth-grade class is expected to move up, filling the incoming ninth grade.
David McBride is the principal of the school and came to Rochester Prep having taught at the college level. He was attracted to Rochester Prep because of its mission to teach disadvantaged youth and appreciated the high expectations for students here. The school also has managed to attract and keep very talented teachers, he said.
“In the end, the most important thing you can do for kids is put a good teacher in front of them,” he said.
“This is a high expectations model,” Copeland said after touring the school. It is one of the reasons that the foundation agreed to support it financially.
“We really want to make investment grants,” she said, emphasizing the word investment.
“If our expectations are here,” she gestured over her head, “I think a kid will always reach for that.”
The visitors from KeyBank got to meet and talk with 11th grade student Zaid Abdulsalam, who said his mother applied and got him into the Rochester Prep program initially. He appreciates the structure.
“It keeps me focused and doing what I need to do,” he said.
Abdulsalam is interested in a career in medicine and also wants to learn about animation, he said. His first choice for college is Rochester Institute of Technology, where he could pursue both interests.
“You talk to a guy like that, and you can see they did it right,” Barger said of the Rochester Prep program after chatting with Abdulsalam. Having been persuaded by Howard to help the school financially, Barger has also been tapped as its newest trustee.
“The work they do is outstanding—I think it’s a great thing for KeyBank to focus on,” he said.
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