What fate awaits East’s EPO?

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The East Lower and Upper schools currently have a total student population of just over 1,000. (Photo by Paul Ericson)

When Carmine Peluso opened a recent work session on the University of Rochester’s partnership with East High, he warned attendees that it wasn’t going to be a spectator sport. 

“If you’re here for the Holyfield vs.Tyson fight between East and the district, then you’re at the wrong place,” said Peluso, superintendent of schools for the Rochester City School District.

“I recognize the work that East has done,” he continued. “Ten years ago, they talked about making sure you had the right people, that they were using best practices, and that they were building capacity. What I want to say today is that I believe East has done that.”

Yet UR’s time as the education partnership organization for East might be nearing its end. Established in early 2015, the partnership was given a five-year extension in 2021. Without another extension, the current agreement will expire in July 2025.

The EPO, managed through the university’s Warner School of Education, gives East its own superintendent and more operational autonomy than other RCSD schools. The state Education Department approved the partnership after East was placed in receivership due to poor academic performance. (An EPO is intended to be a temporary measure used to turn around struggling schools.)

Peluso, who took over as RCSD superintendent last year, and others involved with the EPO have publicly commented on a mutual respect and confidence in addressing the program’s scheduled expiration.

“Dr. Peluso and I have had a wonderful relationship and understand the value and the need to work collaboratively,” said Marlene Blocker, EPO superintendent at East Lower and Upper schools. “I look forward to working with him and truly believe that he can continue to carry the work forward.”

The looming decision has stoked emotions, however. Criticism of the EPO by some RSCD board members was met with passionate defense voiced by parents, students, and neighborhood residents at a public hearing session in late January. This month, an online petition, “We are East,” circulated among EPO supporters.

EPO critics cite high costs of the partnership, which they say contributes to a disparity of resources across the district. In addition, the 2023 RCSD academic plan recommended transitioning East to full district control. 

Practically, ending the partnership in 2025 would leave scant time for creating a transition plan. EPO supporters worry that ending the agreement with no clear plan forward could damage the progress made at East.

“We all knew the EPO would end at some point; however, I believe we must be intentional about the transition back to the district. We can not lose the momentum and progress that has been made,” says Lorna Washington, senior program officer at the Konar Foundation and a part of the Step to College program at East. “Partnerships will need to be sustained, parents must continue to be meaningfully engaged, and teachers and students must maintain their commitment to the priorities and vision of East.”

Cynthia Elliott, president of the RSCD board, who declined to speak with the Beacon for this article, has acknowledged the positive work at East. 

“But there are some concerns that some of us have around the financial piece,” she said at the work session. “So, I think it’s time for us to have this discussion.”

For now, the fate of the East EPO remains undecided. Board members say they require more information, specifically on a 2024-25 budget for East as well as any recommendations from the state Department of Education, before making a decision. The budget presentation will be Feb. 29, with the board slated to make a decision on March 28.

History of East

Located between the Beechwood and North Winton Village neighborhoods, the East Lower and Upper schools currently have a total student population of just over 1,000. Mirroring most schools in the district, the majority of students (over 80 percent) are either Black or Hispanic, with economically disadvantaged students similarly proportioned.

Prior to the EPO’s creation, East High had among the worst measurable academic outcomes in the city. For example, the graduation rate in the 2011 four-year cohort was 33 percent, well below the average for the rest of RSCD schools.

“There were a number of efforts to try to turn the ship around at East, but they were scattered, not a focused effort,” says Shaun Nelms, director of the Center for Urban Education Success at UR and former EPO superintendent at East.

The school was placed into receivership, a designation given to “persistently struggling” schools by the Department of Education, in the 2015-2016 school year. Receivership schools that do not improve after a set period are subject to further independent receivers appointed by the state’s education commissioner.

Including East Lower and Upper, 12 RCSD schools, four of which are high schools, are currently under receivership.

After being put into receivership, East chose to create an EPO with UR. The EPO gives the program superintendent expanded abilities including the power to change programs and curriculum, implement professional development for staff, and expand the school day.

Nelms, who was EPO superintendent at the time, incorporated each of those changes and credits them with improving school outcomes. They include: 

Freshman Academy, a wing of the school specifically for helping transition 9th graders;

Step to College, a pre-college program that aims to prepare students for admission to two-year and four-year colleges;

■ school family groups, where staff meet regularly with students to support them; 

■ an extended school day of 7.5 hours, focusing on math and literacy in grades 6-9 and structured support, extra help, career and technical education, and advanced coursework for older students;

■ career experience in the field of optics, the culinary arts, education, information technology or the health sciences; and

■ year-round professional learning, which gives staff 20 days of professional development during summer.

Those changes have resulted in tangible improvements at the school. Four-year cohort graduation rates rose to surpass RCSD’s average in three years and currently reside in the 80 percent region. Receivership goals set by Education Department in school safety, dropout rates and chronic absenteeism have also been met every year.

Under the EPO, testing results for English Language Arts and Math regents assessments have generally improved past RCSD’s average. Comparing the 2012 and 2015 cohorts, ELA scores considered “proficient” (those at a level 3 or 4) jumped from 40 percent to 70 percent. Math proficiency increased from 54 percent to 74 percent in the same time frame.

Scores since the COVID-19 pandemic are more complicated to assess for any district or school. In the 2019-2020 school year, Regents exams were canceled and, in the following years, there was a significant percentage of students who chose to opt out of testing.

“I would say by all accounts, East’s progress has been remarkable. The academic results, particularly at the Upper School, have met or exceeded our expectations,” Washington says. “However, I think the story that needs to be equally applauded is the culture shift within the building among the students, teachers/staff and the parents/families.”

The cost question

This success has not silenced criticism, however. Undeniably, East spends more per student than any other Rochester school with the same grade levels.

In the 2022-2023 school year, RCSD schools had an average funding of about $29,000 per student. East Lower and Upper schools were higher than that at $49,700 and $38,500 per student, respectively. Some board members have interpreted this as an inequity of resources.

“There are schools performing much better than East, and not costing us as much,” RCSD board vice president Beatriz LeBron said at a meeting about the EPO. “I just don’t see how the state itself could support this kind of contract agreement after five years and still seeing numbers in receivership.”

At the same time, she added, other schools have suffered academically.

“What we’ve (now) created at Franklin is literally East before the East EPO. We underfunded, understaffed, and under-resourced East High School, which allowed it to crumble to the state that it was, which got it into the bucket list of either being closed down or be in receivership to a monitor,” she continued.

At Franklin’s Lower and Upper schools, $30,000 and $28,000 was spent per pupil in 2022-2023, respectively.

According to the superintendent’s office, the current budgeted general fund revenue for 2024-25 is $902 million with $916 million in projected general fund appropriations, leaving a $14 million gap between funding and expenses.

Peluso has stressed he is looking for direction from the board before starting to plan a transition or maintaining the EPO. He does believe that keeping East programming in place is possible with collaborative effort.

“I think there’s a way, through a collective agreement with a (memorandum of agreement), to honor the work that’s in place within several years. To say, ‘We’re not going to change this, this and this,’” the superintendent said at a meeting about the EPO.

Responding to criticism of the EPO’s cost, Blocker pointed out that East has returned between $1.8 million and $5.5 million of its funds to the RCSD general fund each year of the EPO. In total, the schools have contributed $27 million in this manner from 2015 to 2023.

And Nelms believes that community organization involvement is also dependent on the structure of the EPO. East has more than 20 listed community partners; a number of them, such as the Konar Foundation with Step to College, have made direct investments to support the EPO. For its part, UR gives in-kind contributions through enrichment programs. The certainty and accountability of the EPO lent itself as a good partner in this way, Nelms argues.

“In the first couple years, we raised almost $2 million from our donors, our board of trustees, from businesses they owned, with the caveat that that money would go to students, 100 percent,” Nelms says. “This was at a time when the district was going through a financial crisis and an audit. So, those donors said, ‘We’ll give, but we’re not going to give to a system that is failing without its financial structure in place.’”

Skeptics of the push by Elliott and others to terminate the EPO cite RCSD budgetary troubles, turnover at the leadership level, and a complex reconfiguration plan, which is set to go in effect this fall.

“If you include interims, there were seven different superintendents since we started (the EPO), and all new cabinet members. They never really took the time or had the structure to be able to understand it because there was so much turnover,” says Nelms.

“When the RCSD has stabilized, when they’ve rebounded from the school closings that are coming up and transitioned to the new middle school structure, then I think we can start to work on fully integrating East back into RCSD,” said Blocker, echoing Nelms’ sentiment.

However, she also says the constant focus on finances detracts from the true impact. 

“To truly understand East, you have to understand not just the tangibles, but the multitude of intangibles that lies beneath each of those,” said Blocker. “By ignoring the intangibles, or having wanton disregard for them, you will miss the minuscule parts that have (an) exponential impact on outcomes.

“A budget that leads to graduates is a budget well spent. If you pay up front, you’ll get dividends forever,” she continued.

Who gets control?

The issue of control also has been part of the debate. While the autonomy afforded by EPO structure might have protected East at one time, Peluso believes, it has led to division and red tape.

He has supported East in the past with use of the administration’s legal services, for example, as he would for any RCSD school. However, there is an imbalance when Peluso has requests for the EPO partnered school.

“My voice as superintendent is minimized because I need to ask for permission at times,” said Peluso. “When it comes to budget issues, there is a process of negotiation that has to happen to see what (East is) willing to do. It gets very convoluted.

“I’ve never looked at East as not part of the district, but my internal rub comes when I have to ask permission to place a kid somewhere. Those are the realities of the structure we have created,” he continued.

Blocker’s concern lies with people making uninformed decisions about East’s budget. Along with other EPO supporters, she had hopes for the initiatives at the school to be shared across the entire district. Instead, she says interest in the developments at East have been limited to only a few board members.

“Commissioner (Amy) Maloy had a daughter at East, so she is probably most informed in the things we have done. But there has not been other representation at the district level that has come in to say, ‘What are you doing? Why is it working? What didn’t work that made you pivot to try a different route?’” Blocker said. “So, it’s very hard for us to respect the request to return when we feel like no one has even taken the time to understand what we have done.”

For her part, Elliott, who is the board liaison to East, says neither East nor UR reached out to engage her on this point before the start of 2024. Advocates for the EPO claim they did.

“I think East’s community could sustain itself at this point. But it’s not a matter of ‘Is East ready?’ It’s ‘Is the system ready?’” Nelms observes. “Because they need to be knowledgeable enough to make decisions that are long term, that they truly understand the impact of those decisions.”

Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer and data journalist. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

7 thoughts on “What fate awaits East’s EPO?

  1. RCSD administrators and Board have much to learn from East’s success about how to administer effective school programs. I agree that this sort of education should happen and a careful transition plan be developed before any transition occurs. That means extending the EPO with a sustained and targeted learning process ongoing during the extension period and a transition plan that revolves around how to begin to incorporate best practices into other RCSD schools.
    The author says there are many partners who have helped East High in its achievements. I wonder how much East alumni have been incorporated into its support. I ask because I remember meeting an RCSD central administrator on a plane several years back, and reflecting on the sad state of Franklin High, my alma mater. I told her that there were many Franklin alumni who would be willing to offer support if asked, including me. Nothing ever happened and, now, many of us are aging out successful elders! East has built a legacy of increasingly successful alumni who can be called on. This idea is not too late to move forward for RCSD.

  2. Oh, boy, where to begin!
    We have many colleges and universities in the area. All of them strut their education prowess as the best. The Warner School of education, within the UofR, specializes in education. Have they made an appreciable difference in the East High statistics? Yup. Is it at an acceptable level? It is not, period. Cynthia Elliott, the RCSB President, declined to comment. Interesting that the President of the school board has nothing to say about decades of failure in the RCSD. Yet the goal appears to be that East High be transitioned back to the district. It appears to be an issue of control. If that control could result in educational success….but it will not. Decades of urban educational failing is owned by the RCSD and the RCSB. They, collectively, cannot teach the way kids learn. Here is the example. The School for the Arts has a very good attendance and an excellent graduation record. You know why? Those kids have found their gift, their innate skill and they are in school, learning their art, and graduating toward post high school success. The kids that attend the failing schools, fail for a reason. They are not shown any profession nor careers. They are bored by the academics and consequently either drop out or barely graduate. Show them professions and careers which will allow them to connect those boring academics with those careers/professions. The School of the arts doesn’t have that problem, they already know why the academics are important because they have direction and a connection. Until the RCSB wakes up and realises that, the urban kids will continue to fail. Bringing the control back to the failing school district will only lead to a set back for the East High populous. It will bring them back and in line with the failure that has existed for decades! You would think that the institutions of higher learning would once and for all step in collectively and bring the RCSD on par with the county schools. They will have to decide if they can do this collectively, or…..or openly admit that the urban kids are uneducable. Let me answer that one, ALL KIDS HAVE INNATE SKILLS AND OR GiFTS, ALL. We just need to teach them the way they learn, show them professions and careers and allow them to connect those many opportunities with the perceived boring academics. The main question asked by those that drop out is…”what do I need this s— for anyway?” that said, show them. Now, Cynthia Elliott, Adam Urbanski, Carmine Peluso, etc. keep this in mind it’s not the kids that are the problem…it’s the ADULTS in the room that are the problem. Semper Fi.

  3. The lessons we SHOULD be learning from the EPO are as follows:

    * Investing more money properly will raise the prospects of children in underserved districts.
    * The U of R did an excellent job of guiding this transition and it’s success is evident
    * RCSD seems to see this as a ding against their management of other schools. It is.
    * The U of R has a vested interest in the Rochester community, but should be held to a higher, more accountable standard for their contribution – both in kind and in dollars. They benefit hugely from tax credits, and other gifts from this community. The least they can do is return some of that in more in kind and monetary investments in RCSD schools, including East.
    * The U of R has plenty of money and assets: Total Revenue $4,135,942,762 Total Expenses $4,087,444,626 Net Assets $3,386,077,727 – that is BILLIONS not MILLIONS.
    * Instead of cancelling this program, RCSD should be looking to expand it across all schools in the district. This program is a model for success. If other schools aren’t performing as well, perhaps we should be looking at implementing it there, rather than cancelling it here.
    * Irondequoit residents from all spectrums of financial success support this program even with “higher costs”. If RCSD opposes it one has to wonder why?
    * The key to lifting populations from poverty is investing in hope. This program gives kids and their parents hope of a better life. What could possibly be more important.

    — An irondequoit resident (without kids in school)

  4. If we want to talk about inequities in school funding, this year charter school students living within the City of Rochester are funded at a per-pupil rate of $14,316. In addition, students also receive school lunch money from the federal government, special education funding if needed, along with in-kind transportation and school nurse services from the RCSD. But those numbers don’t add up to anything even remotely approaching the RCSD per-pupil funding levels referenced in this article. Charter schools are public schools and their students are public school students. The funding differentials between individual RCSD schools pale in comparison to the funding differential between district and charter school students.

    • And yet Irondequoit residents successfully fought off a charter school who wanted to move to East Irondequoit. A school with a far higher graduation rate than even East, and certainly far higher than the rest of RCSD. They came up with a lot of specious reasons, but it boiled down to complete NIMBY for a school whose only goal was to expand and allow more students to benefit from their excellent program. I live near that potential site, share the schools bafflement that anyone would NOT want a successful educational institution near them, and am a bit ashamed the rest of my local community would exhibit their ignorance of how important it is for students to be able to succeed and be proud of their work.

  5. “Seeing is believing.” “Out of sight, out of mind.”
    Do East and other schools have MOTIVATIONAL ideas, online for students/teachers/parents?
    About 15 years ago, I started my own web page: http://www.SavingSchools.org to collect ideas, to motivate learning, for myself, and for others. I pay $100 a year for this page. If RCSD is so concerned about finding efficient ways to motivate learning, why don’t they encourage online materials?

    My own page is disorganized, and I am not sure which ideas are most helpful and which are not, but at least I have a place to go to explore possibilities. Sometimes, “Seeing is believing.”
    Perhaps, perhaps, Rochester City School District will start to wake up to the possibilities, now.

    • “JOYWAVE” This is the name of a popular Rochester Rock Band. Our schools should focus more on the JOY of learning. School web pages can help to encourage JOY in school. Images and web links can help to remind students, teachers and parents, of specific lessons and happy experiences in education, we can share, over and over again.
      Learning is not about simply getting over requirements and tests, in order to move on, and to graduate, etc. Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy, over and over, again… http://www.SavingSchools.org

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