The positive trajectory of the UR-East High partnership

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Dr. Shaun Nelms

After years of low performance, East High School was designated a “persistently failing school” by New York’s commissioner of education. Having failed to achieve sufficient progress in the year following this designation, the Rochester City School District Board of Education was required to designate an independent receiver called an Educational Partnership Organization. In April 2014, the president of the board of education approached the University of Rochester about becoming East High’s EPO. The university accepted the challenge and welcomed the first class of students in the fall of 2015. 

Community support

The EPO has enjoyed deep community support from agencies, philanthropists, and city government. The RCSD board of education has been instrumental. The board has supported the additional costs for turnaround schools and given us the freedom to implement a best-practice model. The state Education Department and the Board of Regents have also been valuable partners, providing technical assistance, policy flexibility, and very real encouragement. Close partnering with our employee associations has been vital, and we appreciate the willingness of our teachers to rethink their practices. We are especially inspired by our families and scholars. They have consistently stepped up to meet the challenges of college and career readiness.

Changing the culture

First and foremost, we sought to help our scholars feel safe and valued. A foundational element of the entire plan was to create a school culture based on trusting relationships and individual dignity. 

Cultural change is difficult to measure. Perhaps the simplest way to indicate the change in culture at East is by looking at systems that deal with inappropriate behavior. Before the EPO, when students misbehaved, they were likely to be suspended. This punitive approach had dire academic consequences. In 2014, East suspended students nearly 2,500 times, 39 percent of which were out of school.

By comparison, during the 2017–18 school year, there were only 369 suspensions, of which 12 percent were out of school. That is not because we now tolerate inappropriate behavior. Rather, we treat inappropriate behavior as a violation of the culture of the community, supporting opportunities to repair relationships and rebuild that culture. We are thoughtful in our approach to discipline. Suspensions are reserved as a last option only after we’ve tried other restorative approaches and for the most serious offenses. We have found that we can resolve many conflicts and repair relationships more successfully with this approach, and far fewer students are missing instructional time.

We have also seen improvements in attendance. Average daily attendance increasedfrom 77 percent in 2014–15 to 90 percent at the Lower School (grades 6–8) and 82 percent in the Upper School (grades 9–12) in 2017–18, with further increases in fall 2018 to 91 percent and 85 percent, respectively. While a significant gain, it is not nearly enough. More than 10 percent of our students miss school on any given day and over 30 percent of our students miss at least 10 percent of their school days. We hope that the stronger school-going culture built at the Lower School will translate into better Upper School attendance in the years ahead.

Relationships and practices that support students and community

The improvements at East can be traced to implementation of five systemic changes:

Restorative practices: At East, it is the responsibility of all parties to build and repair relationships within the community. Every adult at East has received training in restorative practices, and our team of social workers oversees implementation.

The family group: Every scholar in the building belongs to a small group that meets daily under the guidance of one or two adults. We designed this structure to ensure a close relationship with a caring adult for every student and a place where we can foster a culture of care, trust, and accountability that prioritizes relationships.

Adequate support staff: East’s young scholars are smart and resilient but also benefit tremendously from the support of additional school counselors and school social workers to help navigate the challenges and social-emotional trauma associated with living in a high-poverty environment.

The right people: From the start, the EPO has insisted that every adult working at East be “All In.” All existing faculty and staff were invited to reapply for their positions at East. They then were asked to commit to the plan to be “All In,” which they would help to define and build as a community.

A focus on community: East partners with 13 community agencies. We have a school-based health center, and dental services are provided onsite through the partnership with the UR. Our scholars have mentors from the community.

Family and community engagement

The change in school culture involves and affects the entire school community, including East staff, scholars and their families, and the larger Rochester community. The FACE committee, formerly the Parent Teacher Organization, has seen a significant increase in family participation and decision making. Our scholars also help to shape the new culture at East. The number of East scholars sitting on governance council and other leadership committees continues to grow.

Academics at East

Curriculum: We believe that instruction must start with quality curriculum. When the EPO began its work, we engaged in a five-year comprehensive curriculum development process that teachers collaboratively create and deliver. Using the research-based framework “Understanding by Design” to create curriculum, students, teachers, and administrators share understanding of what students are learning, why they are learning it, and what additional help students may need. All students receive high-quality curriculum using high-quality materials.

Instruction: The instructional process provides time for daily collaborative planning among teachers, tight alignment to the curriculum, use of clear learning targets, and techniques that build student engagement.

Assessment:The EPO has adopted a process of student common formative assessments, which includes student projects, classroom activities, and tests, in order to understand students’ progress and to inform teachers in making adjustments to their planning and decision making. Teachers collaboratively analyze student data in order to plan instructional strategies to meet the specific needs of our scholars.


Key structures put in place to support academic achievement include increased emphasis and time built into the schedule for literacy and mathematics, a deliberate and supportive ninth-grade academy, and academic support periods.

Grades 6-9:The EPO added both time and staff to build the literacy and mathematics achievement of our scholars. From grades 6 through 9, every East scholar takes an English language arts class as well as a class in literacy. Services in these classes include targeted intervention, remediation, and enrichment based on each individual scholar’s reading score and needs. The share of students scoring “proficient” or “advanced” rose from 2 percent to 11 percent for ELA and from 1 percent to 18 percent for mathematics.

Ninth Grade Academy: Extensive research notes the importance of a successful 9th-grade year for students in order to graduate from high school on time. If scholars can finish 9th grade with at least five of the 22 credits needed for graduation, they are well positioned to graduate on time—nearly three-quarters of 9th graders achieved this goal in 2017-18, up from half in 2014-15.

At East, 9th graders now have their own hallway, their own administrators, and appropriate social-emotional support, creating a nurturing school within a school. 

Positioning seniors to graduate: To graduate from high school in New York, a student must pass Regents exams in English, mathematics, global history, U.S. history, science and a language other than English. The EPO is helping students cross the finish line by tracking progress on these critical milestones. For the current senior class (2019), 70 percent began the year having passed mathematics, and 55 percent had passed ELA. These data suggest that we will continue to see an upward trend in the graduation rate for the Class of 2019. We continue to experience challenges with the two history exams. To address this, scholars receive intensive support in retaking exams and, in many cases, can be exempt from one of the social studies examinations depending on their specific graduation pathway.

Much work remains. Our students often enter East well below expectations in reading and numeracy. With the right levels of support, however, they can become successful scholars, making up lost ground.

Investing in students and our community

The university made a significant investment of resources and human capital to achieve these gains. Many of the systems and resources that support student success were not in place when we began our work at East. We also advocated for essential resources from the district, state, and community partners to transform East. University leaders felt an obligation to students, families, and the community to create this partnership as a model for transforming schools that are persistently failing their students. The Center for Urban Education Success at UR’s Warner School of Education is capturing our stories and researching best practices to meet our mission. (Learn more about the research being done at East by visiting the CUES website.)

The work of school transformation presents many challenges. Our EPO model includes extensive supports and additional resources to help our students “catch up.” Our scholars receive double periods in English language arts/literacy and mathematics through grade 9, which has resulted in extra costs for these subject areas. We have 11 literacy teachers at East and 18 English as a second language or bilingual teachers, many more than most high schools. As our students often come to us having experienced trauma in their lives, we have 11 school counselors and seven social workers to provide social and emotional support. Our teachers develop and deliver high-quality, engaging curriculum. We provide time every day for our teachers to be involved in collaborative planning. We also compensate our staff for extra time and effort. Almost all of our scholars have a support period during which they receive small-group and individual targeted academic support from their teachers. This represents an additional small-group teaching period for almost every teacher.

The EPO’s significant investment went beyond financial resources. We made the most important investment in our people. We brought together the right people—highly qualified teachers and staff with the heart and fortitude to do the work and to reexamine their own practices. The great educators at East design and implement a high-quality program that aligns with a clear vision for academic achievement and preparation of scholars for college and career. Our scholars and staff feel safer and valued, and they believe they can succeed. These extensive investments have created a positive trajectory for our scholars and our community.

Dr. Shaun Nelms is superintendent of East High School. He also is William and Sheila Konar Director for the Center for Urban Education Success at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education. Read East High’s complete Year Three report here.

How receivership works in New York

New York State Education Law §211-f defines a “priority school” as one that has been identified by the state’s accountability system to be among the lowest 5 percent of public schools in the state. A “failing school” is one that has been deemed to be a priority school for three consecutive years. A “persistently failing school” is one that has been among the lowest-performing schools for 10 consecutive years, although additional considerations apply. See the statute for more information.

Schools designated by the commissioner of education as persistently failing may continue to be operated by the school district, with the superintendent granted the powers of a receiver as defined in the statute. During this period the board of education may not overrule the superintendent (although the board may still fire him or her). At the end of a year, the persistently failing designation may be removed, district operation continued, or the school may be placed into receivership at the discretion of the commissioner.

Receivership designation requires that the board of education appoint an independent receiver, subject to the approval of the commissioner. The receiver is granted sweeping powers under the law, including the power to supersede any decision of the board or superintendent that is in conflict with the intervention plan developed by the receiver in consultation with local stakeholders. The receiver has the power to abolish all staff positions and require that incumbents reapply, renegotiate affected collective bargaining agreements (with the commissioner as final arbiter) and make all hiring decisions, although it must fill 50 percent of all positions with the most senior of the former school staff deemed to be qualified by the staffing committee.

9 thoughts on “The positive trajectory of the UR-East High partnership

  1. NYS still owes public schools more than $4billion. And not all progress and outcomes can be captured by harmful tests thousands opt-out of.

    • I dare say few high performing NYS state schools approach the per pupil expenditure of the CSD (even McQ and HAC). See St Louis experiment where money was no object and the results 5 years later was no measurable difference in outcomes. CSD was a high performing urban district in crowded schools well into the 1960’s w/ relatively low per pupil expenditures (attributable in part to scandalously low teacher salaries). My 7th grade class had 60 plus students in a single room and a high school PTA organisation was discouraged by a no nonsense principal. CSD continues to reinvent the wheel – e.g., junior highs, no junior highs, middle school, “home based guidance,” “quality intergrated integration” (Goldberg), IMRAs/clusters, high teacher salaries etc, etc. all overseen by a quarrelsome school board as middle/working class parents bailed out of the 19th, 10th, 9th, 23rd and 21st wards inter alia. – NOT what you term “rich parents.” Sadly, there is no simple solution and outcomes 10 years from now will be the same or even worse at still higher costs. A county wide school district will never happen politically w/ schools increasingly segregated due in part to abandonment of neighborhood schools. As a life long City resident, former teacher, parent and student I say this w/ sadness.

  2. $1 billion divided by 25K students is a methodologically unsound way of determining per-pupil funds in CSD. It ignores many factors and variables. Further, the D&C reported in October 2018 that the per-pupil funding at East High is $36k–way above average for most districts and states.

    • Regardless, that is the AVERAGE cost ignoring the $1 Billion plus for capital improvements; indicating that there is scant correlation between pupil expenditures and educational outcomes. Were the CSD budget 2 billion the outcomes would be the same(see St Louis plan of some years back). A Swiftian “modest proposal” of sorts: Perhaps such vast sums would be be better spent on providing a prep school ed. at e.g., Deerfield, Kent,HAC, etc. ? Since Herman Goldberg superintendents w/ their various nostrums have come and gone and will continue to do so overseen by a dysfunctional Board of Ed. Silk purses and sows’ ears?

  3. “Graduation rates have risen sharply at East and student suspension rates have fallen. Attendance has remained problematic, though, and the school has come under fire for taking in fewer students overall, including those with disabilities or English language learners.”

    Yes, and the graduation rate rose (to the district average or so) EXACTLY when they got rid of nearly all special education and esol kids…kids who tend not to test well or graduate on time. It is wildly expensive (apparently 16,000/student more) and in fact if you took the stats for special education and esol kids in any building out of the equation the stats would be similar.

    All of our schools need the resources East is getting, but those resources still won’t fix community issues in the short term. That is why they have to play with numbers to support it.

    The graduation rate was never as low as Nelmes claims it was when he walked in the door. Back then about 1 out of 4 students in the school were special education students. about 1 in 4 were esol. The sped kids mostly got transferred to Edison and the esol kids to Monroe. There were many hundreds (if memory serves about 450) over age under credit 9th graders (think 18 year old 9th graders it’s 2!out of the 22 credits needed to graduate).

    Nelmes and East didn’t work a miracle because they are better at education than the rest of everybody. They were handed a different school and a different set of rules and resources, but they still called it East and suggested that the reason for improvements were because the people involved in the project worked magic.

    Make no mistake, this project is a money maker for ALL involved. Just look at the Board resolutions.

    First and foremost I am happy for any rcsd student that is well served. Period. But they all need opportunities and we all need to tell the truth.

    I’m sure some good work has been done (I know it), but seriously, people need to tell the truth about ALL of the ways that the numbers have changed.

    • This person is perpetuating a lie designed to undermine the work of teachers and administrators at East. We did NOT remove ENL and students with disabilities from the school. Numbers decreased because we cleaned data (there were students on the roster who did not exist). We implemented an inclusion model where students with disabilities were fully included in general education – they did not disappear. It would be wonderful if people celebrated the work some are doing to produce equitable education for our youth instead of continuing the narrative of failure.

  4. Average CSD per pupils in daily attendance is circa $40K (approximately $1 Billion divided by 25k students) ignoring recent capital expenditures of circa $1.2 billion. How much more than this does the EHS experiment entail? Clearly district wide application of whatever that sum may be is not sustainable.

  5. What is the per-pupil funding at East High, officially or unofficially? And what percentage of teachers at the school have more than 15 years experience?

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