Residents discuss city school district’s strategic plan

ROCHESTER – During recent meetings with officials of the Rochester City School District, parents and students from the Hispanic community offered suggestions about how to improve schools and help students.

"We want to be able to give information to the superintendent and the board so we can be better … as a community," said school board member Melisza Campos during a Feb. 23 parent meeting at the Martin Luther King Jr. School No. 9.

Amid rhetoric about improving the academic performance of the district’s students, Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard said the district’s goal gets lost in discussions about graduation rates. That goal is to prepare students for life after high school, whether in college or a job, not just to have them graduate high school, Brizard said during the parent meeting, which focused on his strategic plan.

"If you go to the suburbs and say your goal is to have kids graduate high school, you will get a look," he said. "The goal is to get kids ready for what comes after."

For the strategic plan to work effectively, the community must believe that every child can succeed, remarked Brizard. The plan’s motto: "Every child is a work of art. Create a masterpiece."

"If you don’t (believe that), the game is lost to begin with," he said.

The issue of providing support for students whose native language is not English was raised by Hilda Rosario-Escher, president and chief executive officer of Ibero-American Action League.

Brizard said educating English language learners is an issue for all upstate districts. Whereas bilingual-education students now primarily attend Thomas Jefferson or James Monroe high schools, the strategic plan would make bilingual programs available in more high schools.

"It’s critical to have good assessment and good placement … and resources at schools where kids are placed," added Father Laurence Tracy, a longtime advocate for the Hispanic community.

While language acquisition is not primarily a Latino issue within the school district, Brizard said that the district needs to study why achievement for Latino studenst drops off in high school although Latinos’ achievement results are equal to those of African-American students until the eighth grade.

"Maybe it’s more social than academic," he said. "But we have to get to it."

But the superintendent must be careful not to lump Latinos in with African-Americans, said Mercedes Vázquez-Simmons, whose son attends School of the Arts. According to information from the state education department, Hispanic students constitute 21 percent of the district’s 32,147 students.

"We are a growing population with specific needs … which warrants attention," added Vázquez-Simmons.

Making sure students are prepared to compete in a global environment after high school is one of the strategic plan’s five goals. The others are to create engaging and nurturing school environments, to hire and retain highly effective and diverse staff dedicated to student success, to use world-class standards and practices, and to hold staff accountable for student success.

Of those, having the best teachers possible is a key goal, Brizard said.

"If we don’t have the best people, the game is lost as well," he said

Brizard said that the district’s 90-percent poverty rate is not an excuse for low achievement. While he acknowledged a correlation between poverty and low achievement, Brizard said there are many examples of people who have overcome it.

While Maria Otero, parent liaison for School No. 9, said she agrees with Brizard that a lack of parent involvement — due to families’ economic situations or cultural barriers — needn’t be an obstacle to a students’ success, she said she also finds it frustrating to see how few people take advantage of an opportunity to air their concerns to the superintendent.

Following the meeting, Otero explained her disappointment at the low turnout for the strategic hearing. But she said even in a past event that included dinner and dancing, only three of the 35 confirmed parents showed up.

"They don’t understand the power they have in the schools," she said. "Especially for Puerto Ricans and other Latino people. They think you put your child in schools and the teacher will take care of it."

Otero said she will continue to help parents adjust their thinking so more of them will start speaking out.

"You can advocate for your child," she said. "You have the power. you have the knowledge about your child."

Students also need to have a drive to succeed and know how to capitalize opportunities that come their way, Brizard commented. For example, city students have the opportunity to attend the University of Rochester and the Rochester Institute of Technology on full scholarships but few do, Brizard added.

"The bottom line is we need to provide opportunities … for our kids to leverage resources to get where they’re going," he said.

Campos and José Cruz, another school board member, gave Latino students involved in the Puerto Rican Youth Development and Resource Center’s afterschool programs an opportunity to provide input on their school experiences.

Many of the students said teachers spend a lot of classroom time focusing on students who are disruptive or fail to listen. Several students recommended that teachers offer more interactive opportunities to engage students instead of just talking at them. They also suggested that teachers make time to talk individually with students about their progress.

It won’t be an easy task to change the environment of many city high schools, said Yisel Ruíz who transferred from the former Frederick Douglas Middle School to the Harley School in Brighton two years ago.

"In elementary school, you had more freedom and there were no fights," she said. "In high school, there’s violence, guns and police."

The students also agreed with Cruz that offering more specialized programs — such as music production, photography or fashion design — would keep kids in school.

"You have to give kids a reason to go to school in the morning," said José Melo, a senior at Monroe.

While decisions about overall high-school curriculum would remain with district officials, another key element of the plan is giving school administrators more power to make decisions about students in their schools.

"The central office’s job is to support innovation," said Brizard. "Those closest to the kids should make decisions about kids."

EDITOR’S NOTE: For more details on the strategic plans, visit the RCSD Web site.

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