Superintendent outlines plans for city schools

ROCHESTER — Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard says he seeks to transform the city school district, and the difficulty of that goal was demonstrated again through statistics released last week by the New York State Education Department.

About 5 percent of Rochester’s high-school students who graduated in 2009 were ready for college or work, according to the state report released Feb. 8. Readiness was measured by the percentage of students who graduated with scores of 80 or higher on the math Regents exam and at least 75 on the English Regents exam, according to information from education department spokesman Jonathan Burman.

"The Board of Regents has discussed potential revision of high-school graduation requirements several times since the fall," Burman said. "The Board is using extensive data and input from … statewide forums and through an online survey to inform the policy decisions they will make going forward on graduation requirements."

Since Brizard first presented his strategic plan in 2009, he has emphasized the need for the district to prepare students to compete in the fast-paced global economy they face, and during his Jan. 20 "State of the Schools" presentation spoke of the progress that has been made. Proposed changes have been met with resistance, however, as groups protested before and after the presentation, which also laid out the district’s priorities for the future.

"This news underscores the need for the school-improvement strategies Superintendent Brizard is leading," district spokesman Tom Petronio said in an e-mail. "Since he first came to Rochester, he has been working to ensure our schools address the college readiness of our students. Our community has been focused on the graduation rate as the measure of the district’s success. We are making progress in this area while at the same time trying to move the conversation beyond high school and into post-secondary readiness and persistence.

During a Feb. 1 press conference, the Parent and Community Coalition for Educational Change — which includes such groups as Metro Justice and the Community Education Task Force — announced a resolution of no confidence in Brizard, according to http://groups.yahoo.com/group/nyceducationnews/message/31922. The Rochester Teachers Association, whose members marched in protest of Brizard’s presentation Jan. 20 at School of the Arts, also issued a no-confidence vote last week.

Following the press conference, Brizard issued a statement claiming that the coalition seeks to maintain the status quo, which is something Brizard said the district cannot afford to do.

"The battle you see is not germane to Rochester, but what many of colleagues are facing across the country," he said on Jan. 20 during the State of the Schools address. "Many of us are fighting to do what needs to be done to make sure our kids are educated and educated well."

Also during that presentation, Brizard and Malek Evans, president of the district’s board of education, highlighted the progress made during the past three years. That includes improved scores in math and English language arts as well as reversal of a suspension policy that pushed students out on the streets, Evans said. Video of the presentation is available here.

"Three years ago, we were suspending students at an alarming rate; our students belong in the classrooms and not on the streets," Evans noted "There was not a comprehensive approach … ensuring that our students were college ready and ready for the world of work."

The strategic plan and subsequent development of a Portfolio Plan — which was approved by the board on Jan. 27 — position the district to boost academic achievement and graduation rates, Brizard said. By adopting the plan, Rochester becomes part of a network of 22 districts across the country that are striving to replace troubled schools with high-performing ones, according to information at www.rcsdk12.org/1973105209118780/lib/1973105209118780/portfolio_plan_final_final_final.pdf.

The district’s goal is to reach a 75-percent graduation rate by 2013, and it expects to surpass 50 percent for 2010, Evans said. The five priorities that will enable the district to reach its goals include: academic achievement, school safety and environment, personnel management, fiscal oversight and accountability and customer service.

As part of the Portfolio Plan, the district will undergo transition from its current structure to the creation of kindergarten-through-eighth-grade schools, Brizard explained, and phase out such underperforming schools as Thomas Jefferson, Charlotte and Dr. Freddie Thomas high schools. Jefferson will not accept any new students this fall and will be converted into a Newcomer Academy to address the growing number of students learning English in the district. Freddie Thomas will become a kindergarten- through-eighth-grade school, and Charlotte will convert into an all-boys high school. Brizard said Jan. 20 that Charlotte’s conversion will help address the crisis facing African-American and Latino males in Rochester, a crisis that is being felt nationwide.

Not only do Latino and African-American students face low graduation rates around the country, he said, but only 13 percent of these students who go on to college ever graduate.

"If that doesn’t scare you, I don’t know what does, Brizard said.

Board member José Cruz said that Latino families are concerned about Jefferson’s phase-out, because many bilingual students attend there. But Latino families are not the type to protest as other groups are doing, he added.

Because of that, he and other board members are working to reach out to these families and ensure they are informed about the proposals, Cruz said. A summit to address Latino student education, which is in the works for the spring, also will address the impact of phasing out Jefferson, he noted.

The Parent and Community coalition cited the school closures as examples of district decisions being made without parent or community input.

"The other reality we’re looking at … schools that are not performing," Cruz remarked. "By state law, some of it is not our choice. We have to respond."

Organizational change is always difficult and often met with resistance, said Nydia Padilla-Rodríguez, the district’s director of community partnerships. She cited Brizard’s own quip during his Jan. 20 presentation: "Change is easy. You go first."

To realize Brizard’s vision of students who are prepared for college or work will require the kind of paradigm shift that corporations, nonprofit organizations and even government have gone through during these past few years of economic downturn, remarked Padilla-Rodríguez.

"We can no longer continue to ignore the generations of children we have lost in the system," she added. "We’ve done that for too long."

The entire community — educators, parents, businesses, colleges and governments — must come together as a community and pool all of their resources, Padilla-Rodríguez noted.

"This (the state of city schools) affects the whole community, not just the city," she said.

While he supports Brizard’s goals, Anthony Plonczynski said in an e-mail that he did not hear a lot during the State of the Schools speech about how the district would directly engage parents. The district is in the midst of rewriting its parent-involvement policy, however, and scheduled a Feb. 3 meeting seeking input from parents and alumni.

"Too often we talk at our community and not with our community, said Plonczynski, associate director of the David T. Kearns Center for Leadership and Diversity in Science and Engineering at the University of Rochester. "And the divide is still very much evident by both the presentation and the audience responses. The disconnect between the two sides was deafening."

As someone who works with city students, the East High School graduate sees great potential for them. He supports the direction Brizard is taking to offer more support for English language learners through the Newcomer Academy and hopes those efforts continue.

"There also needs to be progression goals to move students into what is known as the "general" student population," he added. "The model right now however has too much of a one-size-fits-all vision and looks as if it will treat our students like widgets in a factory, which is something that our students can not afford and I cannot support."

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