School district’s strategic plan targets English-language learners

ROCHESTER — Hispanic families say they are looking forward to learning more about the recently released Rochester City School District five-year strategic plan.

A session hosted by Melisza Campos, a school board member, and Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard will be held Feb. 23. Gloria Sabastro, president of the district’s bilingual advisory council, plans to attend and hopes other parents will as well.

"I hope that they will raise their voices about the needs of the Hispanic community," Sabastro said. "Bilingual education cannot disappear. On the contrary. We need to increase funding for the education of Latin students so they will have greater opportunities in the future."

The superintendent has heeded the call of staff and community members to improve bilingual services not only for Hispanic students but for all students whose native language is not English, said T’Hani Pantoja, interim executive director of the district’s Department of English Language Learners (ELLs). The department offers services and ongoing support for bilingual students, recently arrived immigrants, refugees and international students.

"I think it is wonderful that he (Brizard) is looking at improving ELL access to rigorous instruction," she said during a Jan. 26 interview. "It’s imperative that we start in the classroom where it impacts student the most. …That means looking at how we better manage and support teaching and learning for ELLs across content areas."

The fact that the superintendent included English-language learners in his plan’s key strategies for improving instruction and raising the current 52-percent graduation rate — which is lower for Latinos — is a positive sign for staff and the Hispanic community, Pantoja noted.

"We do not feel at all left out (of the plan)," she added. "That’s actually very refreshing. He (Brizard) talks a lot about the graduation rates and closing the achievement gap for Latinos."

The superintendent said that the Latino community will play an important role in achieving the plan’s goals, as Hispanics represent 21 percent of the school district’s student population.

"Our strategic plan was developed with extensive input from district staff, students, parents, and the community," Brizard said in an e-mail. "As we roll out the plan, it is important that we continue to have the support of all segments of the community, including the Latino community, in reaching our goals for student achievement. Together, we can achieve our vision to create a masterpiece of every child, each a work of art, who we have the profound privilege and responsibility to educate and to prepare for success in college, work, and life."

The idea that every child is a work of art ready to become a masterpiece is the theme of the strategic plan, which focuses on three core values: improving student achievement; distributing resources equitably based on needs of schools and students; and ensuring adults are held accountable for the success of all students.

According to the plan, goals include providing students with rigorous academic instruction that will prepare them for college and work in a global environment; creating safe and nurturing learning environments; recruiting diverse and highly effective educators; using world-class standards and practices; and creating a culture where the district holds itself accountable for student success.

Hilda Rosario-Escher, president and chief executive officer of Ibero-American Action League, said another focus of Brizard’s plan is parent engagement. To that end, Rosario-Escher said that she was pleased to hear the plan includes a welcome center where new families may go through an orientation to understand the school system and support services available to them.

"Parents come from Latin countries and don’t know how the school system works here. They are lost," said Rosario-Escher, whose agency is studying the education of Latino students in partnership with the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education.

For example in Puerto Rico, parents may pop in to their child’s classroom at any time and speak with the teacher during class time.

"There isn’t that bureaucracy," she said. "And if you go into a school (here) and you are not received the way you’re used to being received, you are not going to participate. You are not going to be engaged."

The plan, she noted, is in keeping with what Ibero is trying to accomplish through its study and recommendations that will follow — higher graduation rates and lower drop-out rates.

"This is really about urban school reform," she said.

A key component of the plan for Latino students will not only be access to improved instruction in bilingual programs but an increase in choices of high schools for bilingual students, which currently is limited to Monroe and Jefferson high schools, Campos said.

"The goal overall is to make sure there are opportunities (for Hispanics) at every high school," she added. "We will diversify … at the elementary level."

That improved access also will include rolling out additional dual-language programs, which currently are only offered in two elementary schools, Pantoja said.

To reach those goals, providing professional development and additional hours of instruction in the form of summer academies will be necessary, Pantoja and Campos said.

The district also will need to offer different kinds of bilingual instruction to meet the needs of a particular community, such as immigrant students whose education may have been interrupted.

"He’s (Brizard) recognized that they’re not all coming in the same way," Pantoja said of students. "And various students of different needs require different strategies for those learners."

As part of the plan, the district also is studying how students are classified in special education to ensure past practices of placing Hispanic students in special education because of language difficulties are not repeated, Campos said.

Pantoja’s office will work with the district’s special-education staff as well as Monroe No. 1 BOCES bilingual experts to poll teachers, students and parents and collect data on how the district classifies English-language learners and special-education students.

"What do we do when students are not meeting benchmarks?" Pantoja asked. "Language is a component we obviously have to consider before we make any kind of recommendations."


EDITOR’S NOTE: An informational meeting about the Rochester City School District’s strategic plan will be held from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Feb. 23 at Martin Luther King Jr. School No. 9, 485 N. Clinton Ave. For more information, call 585-262-8100.

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