The only path to educational reform in Rochester

Print More

I have been involved with Rochester schools for a long time and never before have I seen the need for drastic, public educational change to be greater. Put simply, dramatically improving city schools seems hopeless and the students and their parents feel this.

No one questions the need for serious change but the path to reform is not clear. People argue, point fingers or simply do not understand what needs to happen. Things get confusing and emotional. People lose focus, but the Rochester City School Board’s decision to not renew the East EPO contract shines light on both the answer and the primary impediment. Both subjects are directly connected to the same word: fear.  

I have no doubt that the success at East can be replicated and it would not require support from a university or additional funding, but it would require the one thing that the controllers have refused to grant to anyone proposing anything out of the ordinary: autonomy. This is the thing that most frightens the educational elite.

EPO Superintendent Marlene Blocker stated it several times. “Having governance outside of the RCSD has truly enabled us to overcome barriers from RCSD turbulence, continuous turnover and numerous failed reforms.” There you have it. The single biggest reason why the Rochester City School District can’t turn things around it because it can’t get out of its own way. I believe this failure is intentional. I’ll show why.

Let’s start with the obvious. No one, anywhere, would dispute that the district has been in trouble for many years. The evidence is overwhelming and the outcry has been very public.

1985: Improved performance of the Rochester city schools has become a major focus of the city government under Mayor Johnson. In August 1994, the Mayor, together with then-Monroe County Executive Robert King, convened the “August Group” Educational Reform Committee.

1991: The public is disgusted. So is the business leadership. Everyone out there is angry. They feel left out, alienated and unconnected. They don’t know whether I’m succeeding or failing.  Superintendent Peter McWalters

1995: The status quo is just a euphemism for the mess we’re in. You simply cannot accept this condition. Change is real hard and takes some time. There is pain. RTA President Adam Urbanski

2004: City Officials say that’s the district’s fault, that had the district officials budgeted wisely over the past few years, there would be plenty of money. They return, repeatedly, to the fact that the district’s expenses have gone up while enrollment has dropped. And indeed, that’s the case. Enrollment in the city schools since the year 1999-2000 has gone down by 3218. In that same period, the budget has increased by more than $120 million. City Newspaper

2005: The Blue-Ribbon Task Force, created to review the Rochester City School District’s financial practices and the relationship to educational outcomes, has developed 63 recommendations in its comprehensive report.

2010:  Mayor Duffy is pushing to dissolve the elected board in favor of one appointed by the mayor and city council.

2011: Confronted by a Regents study declaring that only 5 percent of Rochester School District graduates are college-ready, Jean-Claude Brizard declares the findings “terrifying.”  CGR magazine

2012:  First, if we are serious about having all of the school constituents “articulate”—in any meaningful way—ANYTHING at all, we must first ask which school constituents are recognized as having a legitimate voice. There are schools in which the basic mechanisms for voice are absent—no active student organization, no active parent organization, no fully constituted School Base Planning Team; schools where staff members are concerned about negative consequences for speaking out and in which there are few avenues for community members to participate in supportive activities.  School Board Member Mary Adams

2013: This is our last chance to improve this district. Turning over control of the schools would eliminate the bureaucracy that hinders progress. Colleges also tend to offer more consistency and stability. Superintendent Bolgen Vargas

2013: The time has come for the city of Rochester to exercise leadership in the area of education. Mayoral candidate Lovely Warren

2013:  This is my point. Step up with solutions or step aside. It’s not my intention to be harsh but the hard reality is (since we already agree on the data and the problem) there’s no need and no time for standing around while our district drowns. Step up or step aside. RCSD Board President Van White.

2014:  Felix Jacobs, whose son is a seventh-grader at the World of Inquiry School, labeled the district’s current parent engagement work as “piss-poor.” “I call it parent disengagement,” he said. ‘That whole model needs to be thrown out. They’re not sincere in trying to engage parents….What parents need is a union.”  Democrat and Chronicle

2015:  We will explore the feasibility of turning some of our schools over to not only colleges and universities, but also to groups of parents and teachers or other qualifies and committee organizations. Bold, experimental ideas must be considered given the low performance we are achieving. Rochester City School District Action Plan

This is a minuscule sample. More important than the testimonials is the fact that the outcomes are horrendous. As an example, on the 2021/22 New York State eighth-grade math exam, 1,835 students took the exam and only 17 passed. You read correctly. That’s lunacy.

The point is that everyone in the community believes dramatic change is warranted. So what has been the blockage? Do avenues for change even exist? The answer is yes but navigating the path to reform is nearly impossible. It does however exist. The Rochester Teachers Association contract has a section that has been approved by superintendents and school board presidents for nearly forty years. They are called New School Units.

New School Units a. The District and the Association agree to encourage the establishment of new, smaller school units and schools within schools. A multiparty work group shall be formed to identify issues and incentives, to provide support and access to planning expertise, and to facilitate the process of enabling groups of educators to create more responsible school units. Issues to be addressed may include, but are not limited to, scheduling, staffing (transfers, certification, etc.), length/variation of school day and year, interaction with community agencies, community service activities, relationship to existing School-based Planning procedures, mandate relief, contract and policy waivers, etc.

The language here sounds a lot like some of the words in the East EPO contract. No surprise. In fact, the path to success for any urban reform initiative has a similar ring. It doesn’t matter what city you are in. They have different names in different cities but the core requirements are the same. Boston calls them Pilot Schools.

Pilot schools have flexibility around hiring, budget, and curriculum. The Boston Public Schools’ pilot schools are the result of a unique partnership launched in 1994 among Mayor Thomas M. Menino, the Boston School Committee, superintendent, and the Boston Teachers Union. The pilot schools were explicitly created to be models of educational innovation and to serve as research and development sites for effective urban public schools. Pilot schools are part of the school district but have autonomy over budget, staffing, governance, curriculum/assessment, and the school calendar to provide increased flexibility to organize schools and staffing.

This is not hard to understand. Individuals and groups who feel they can do better than the status quo all want the same thing—autonomy. So, what’s stopping real innovation in Rochester if there is a route? 

The reason no one attempts to create anything dramatically different is because the approval process is rigged. A two-headed monster guards the approval gate.  I know this because twice I attempted to break through. I brought a New School Unit to then Superintendent Janeyin the Fall of 2000.  He was all in favor of it and told me to get school-based approval. The group denied approval. I was so infuriated that I resigned and eventually started my own charter school. A few years ago, I shared a much more elaborate example of a School Within a School initiative to a sub-committee of the Rochester City School Board, which then included Mayor Malik Evans. I was again turned away.

The primary problem prohibiting progress in Rochester City Schools is not that we don’t know what needs to be done. We do. The barrier is the system itself. In order to get anything new off the ground, you must have the approval of (seemingly) everyone. The principal and majority of teachers on the front lines have to approve it, and so does the Superintendent and School Board. Of course, these are all committees, so no one is called out or held accountable. The abstentionists remain anonymous. Approval is a long, stressful process. Eventually you concede. In the district the progression has a name: Death by Inches.

So why don’t teachers and leaders do the right thing? There are two reasons for this. School personnel fear repercussions and these fears are real. There is clear chain of command. The higher up you go, the less likely it will be embraced. Teachers fear principals, principals fear their chiefs, etc. Central office officials and school board members may not fear repercussions but they are afraid of change. They do not want their positions to be affected. Unfortunately, I believe union leaders feel the same way. It is the only conclusion I can come to. Conditions for teachers are deplorable and yet I have heard no call to action.

Regardless, most would agree that what we have now is disheartening. Much like the politics in America, there seem to be two opposing views for change. One view promotes more social workers, restorative justice, eliminating suspensions and allowing the students to be themselves. These may all sound OK but I can tell you that the soft, no accountability view some are promoting is not helping students—it is hurting them. Others feel we need a tough love, rigid approach to learning. Give the kids a bootcamp curriculum and that’ll get him straight. Sorry, this doesn’t work. You have to negotiate with students today. I prefer a combination, a firm but fair approach to teaching.

In conclusion, everyone should know that real reform within the Rochester City School District is possible. There is a path. Unfortunately, the path to transformation is long, dark and dangerous. Frodo would likely fall short. We have to either blow up Mordor or find a Gandalf. Long-lasting, supported autonomy will never be granted otherwise.

John Bliss
Rochester City School Teacher (5th grade)
1994 Rochester City School District Center for Educational Development Classroom Champion
Founder of the Urban Choice Charter School

8 thoughts on “The only path to educational reform in Rochester

  1. What a great idea! Why didn’t I think of that! Get rid of those pesky Charter Schools. You know those who actually have shown success in teaching/educating! I have to insist that writing about the educational failure and then suggesting a solution while mixing alcohol with drugs is a bad combination. I’m not even going to comment on, the rest of the story.
    Semper Fi.

  2. Indeed, it is very, very problematic that “Every new Superintendent brings a new philosophy. And, no one stays long enough to see their policy through.” This is why the inept Board needs to develop a REAL and Serious, Long Term Strategic Plan, and insist that whoever takes the job WILL ADHERE to carrying it out — period. It’s NOT that the Board is NOT “giving long term Contracts” — they are. The issue is, as you noted — “no one stays long enough to see their policy through.” Instead, they abandon the Contracts before they are fulfilled, and STILL GET PAID.

  3. The first step in recreating our district needs to begin at the state level. New legislation needs to be drafted to exclude funding of all charter schools. Two, money is not the end all to our district as we have witnessed in the past. But discontinuing funding to charter schools would be a healthy start. Next there seems to be two school board members who continue to wreak havoc on both the board and employees, as recently mentioned by our outgoing Superintendent. The board seems to throw blockades up to discourage progress unless it parallels board wishes.
    No one can improve with their hands being tied. The push and pull games need to stop. So. Does the apparent lifetime seats of the school board. Board members should serve no more than five years, to be fair. Their goal should be the same as every other employee in our district, create valuable learning experiences for all our students. There is no room for loose cannons on our school board. They need to resign instead of just build on their retirement.
    How can you sell a new Superintendent candidate our district if they continue to leave from infighting that should not be going on. The candidate just needs to read a newspaper and can find out about any negatives in our district. Yes we’ve had some clowns in that position as well as some Principals who at times were employed by two districts drawing two paychecks! Who’s minding the store because that is always in question regarding our districts. Personal agendas and changing grades have no place in a school system. Here’s a thought how about our district changes its policies of bodies only being hired, and put the most qualified in positions instead.
    Taxpayers, wake up and force the board to make unemcombered decisions for future Superintendents. There’s plenty of qualified candidates right in our own
    district who are certified and never appear to get the opportunity to serve.
    God knows we need it!
    Thank you!

  4. John, a firm and fair approach to teaching makes sense IF the teaching methods and lesson types are appropriate for urban children.
    All primary teachers (K-3) must be expert literacy teachers.
    All elementary teachers (4-6) must be expert literacy teachers and possess the skills and strategies to help children read, write, think, and speak to learn.
    All teachers (7-12) must be expert literacy teachers in order to teach literacy in the content areas.
    To put it bluntly, all teachers, grades PreK-12, must be expert literacy teachers because the addition literacy and reading teachers are the first ones cut when there is a budget deficit.
    Rochester teachers have been jerked around for years on how to teach kids to read, write, think, and speak.
    John, the City needs its best teachers teaching in the classrooms of the Rochester City School District.
    Literacy teaching and learning is what they should be doing.

    So why don’t teachers and leaders do the right thing?
    Some do.
    Some don’t . . . because they’re told what to do and prohibited from doing what is right for children.
    Some don’t because they don’t know what to do.
    Some don’t because their leaders don’t know what to do.

    Literacy learning and teaching , if done correctly, are not easy.
    They require a depth of knowledge, skills, strategies . . . and a depth of effort.
    Unfortunately, we fall short in these most basic requirements for helping students become strong independent learners and thinkers.

    John, there are no two-headed monsters guarding the approval gates because the approval gates are the classroom doors.
    You may believe that the classroom doors are guarded by some evil people, but I don’t.
    It can be done, but not the way we’ve been doing it.

    Don Bartalo
    69 Cascade Drive
    Rochester, 14614

    • Don,

      What you’re raising is indeed vitally critical, e.g., literacy represents the foundation of all knowledge. WE ABSOLUTELY MUST FIND A WAY TO DEVELOP STRONG LITERACY SKILLS AMONG OUR STUDENTS (right from the very start). However if, as you asserted —“All primary teachers (K-6) must be expert literacy teachers” — wouldn’t that mean that the overwhelmingly vast majority of them would necessarily have to go back to school??? I mean, isn’t literacy-expertise a specific, focused, higher education major — specifically for ELA majors, and possibly others — such as Special Ed???

      Also, as you know, all educators at the 7-12 level are specialists, e.g., Social Studies, Math, ELA, Science, Art, Music, Special Ed, Physical Ed, etc… . So, other than ELA, and again presumably Special Ed teachers at the Middle & High School levels, are you saying that all teachers, regardless of their specialized content areas, need to be educated as literacy-experts?

      I don’t know what you mean by “Rochester teachers have been jerked around for years on how to teach kids to read, write, think, and speak.” Could you please elaborate?

      Also, when you asked: “So why don’t teachers and leaders do the right thing” — could you be more specific? What does that mean (exactly and specifically)? What (exactly and specifically) should they do?

  5. The City School district is a mess. Every new Superintendent brings a new philosophy. And unfortunately, no one stays long enough to see their policy through. The students are the ones who lose out. The board needs to give a long term contract to anyone foolish enough to apply for the position (looking at the history of superintendents would you apply?) so they can see their policies through.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *