ROC the Future to push for RCSD overhaul

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A broad coalition of area community groups, local nonprofits and other organizations is calling on state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia to work with its members, as well as with parents of Rochester public school students and others, to develop plans, methods and strategies to address the Rochester City School District’s ills.   

Formed to respond to the scathing assessment of the RCSD’s shortfalls issued in a report by state-appointed Distinguished Educator Jaime Aquino last November and led by ROC the Future, the group is not, as has been reported, planning to ask Elia for a state takeover of the RCSD. Nor is it angling for Elia to hand the district’s reins to Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren, members stressed in a Mar. 4 event announcing the coalition’s formation. 

Warren spoke at the event in support of a Mar. 1 letter to Elia penned by ROC the Future executive director Jackie Campbell and ROC the Future chair Ajamu Kitwana. ROC the Future outlined a petition campaign—“Our Children. Our Future.” —to transform and improve Rochester’s schools.

Warren is one of more than two dozen local officials who attended a meeting last month in which ROC the Future laid out plans to engage Elia and the city of Rochester in a communitywide school improvement push. Others include Rep. Joe Morelle, the Irondequoit Democrat recently elected to the House of Representatives, and representatives of the Rochester Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative, Monroe County and the Children’s Agenda. 

Read more on the Rochester City School District’s challenges: “Solving the RCSD puzzle.”

While the coalition ROC the Future plans would not look to supplant the RCSD or the school district’s Board of Education, the organization’s letter to Elia makes clear that ROC the Future is not satisfied with RCSD efforts to date. 

“Historically, there is no evidence that the RCSD’s governance has enabled—or can enable—the development and implementation of meaningful change strategies. Additionally 95 percent of the conveners responding to our most recent survey agree with the Distinguished Educator’s report and believe the status quo is not acceptable and transformational change is required,” the letter states. 

The RCSD board’s 110-page, point-by-point response to the distinguished educator’s 88-point critique proposes that the board hold restorative circles and retreats as well as work with Aquino to address ills Aquino points to.

The RCSD response was “less than what’s expected, not enough to create needed change,” Campbell told attendees at the event. 

Elia will have final say on the RCSD response but has yet to weigh in on it. Board president Van White says he is ready to cooperate in any changes or amendments Elia might demand. 

RCSD officials were not listed among some two dozen conveners with whom ROC the Future met last month to lay out plans for the coalition. Two of the district’s seven board members—Beatriz LeBron and Natalie Sheppard—attended the event but said they were there to learn what the coalition was planning.

Sheppard was one of two board members who voted not to endorse the RCSD response. LeBron did not attend the Feb. 6 meeting at which the board voted on the response. Like Campbell, she sees the 110-page document as too short on specifics. Had she been at the Feb. 6 meeting, Lebron said, she would have joined Sheppard and school board member Judith Davis in not endorsing the response.  

White as well as local Board of Regents members Wade Norwood and Andrew Brown were among parties with whom ROC the Future officials conferred to ascertain how the group would respond to the Aquino report. White supports the coalition effort, Campbell believes.

Still, LeBron says she is disappointed that White, who apparently met at least twice with ROC the Future officials, did not inform other board members of those meetings or the coalition’s formation. 

The coalition’s event presented “a lot to take in,” LeBron says. She and Sheppard say they are prepared to support the group’s effort. Still, says LeBron, the board is far from united.  

The coalition’s lukewarm reaction to the RCSD’s answer to Aquino notwithstanding, the group does not plan to waste time with “finger pointing” or casting blame, Warren told attendees. Instead, she said, the group hopes to make as broad a spectrum of the Rochester community a party to any solution Elia might craft. 

“We ask the commissioner to act with us,” Warren said.

While specifics of how that might be arranged have yet to be worked out, Stephanie Townsend, research director of the Children’s Agenda, points to methods worked out by StriveTogether, a national nonprofit that states its mission as “build(ing) the capacity of communities to dramatically improve outcomes for every child from cradle to career by providing strategic assistance, network communications and high-quality resources.”

StriveTogether was formed in 2006 as a partnership focused on school improvement among some 300 local organizations in Cincinnati and northern Kentucky. 

Using data to track and measure performance, that partnership achieved a 9 percent increase in kindergarten readiness, an 11 percent increase in high school graduation rates and a 10 percent increase in college enrollment in school districts it targeted over a five-year span. 

In 2010, the nonprofit, which describes its data-driven method as “relentlessly examining and measuring results,” went national and is currently supporting 70 community partnerships.

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