WXXI Top Stories
Thu January 20, 2011
Transforming Rochester Schools - Part 3
By Julie Philipp
Rochester, NY – Tonight, Rochester City School Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard delivers his first State of Our Schools address.
As part of that speech, he is expected to discuss his plans for developing and supporting great teachers.
This week, WXXI News has been exploring the issue of teacher evaluation and compensation in the district in our series Transforming Rochester Schools. Today, WXXI's Julie Philipp takes us to a school where the teachers are facing a big challenge -- and -- trying out a new incentive program...
((School hallway noise))
East High School is Rochester's biggest school. Back in 2005, 329 students started 9th grade here. Four years later, only 129 of them graduated. 200 of them did not.
DELAHANTY "I think a large majority of our students really didn't find their place here. And so you know it was easy to get sort of sidetracked by other things."
TESFALIDET "There were three, four fights a week."
SOLER "Teachers felt unsafe, unsecure. They had issues in the hall way, every time the bell rang there were issues."
Under review by the state for being low-achieving and persistently dangerous, East High immediately caught Rochester City School Superintendent Jean-Claude's attention when he came from New York City to interview for the job.
BRIZARD "East was one of your old-fashioned, big, comprehensive, dysfunctional high schools. We worked in New York City to dismantle as much as we could. We closed 60 high schools."
And he was pretty sure he would close East as well.
BRIZARD "East really worried me, because I saw a place that was going to pots."
But, three years later, East High School remains in business.
SOLER "No one wants to see East High School go down."
Anibel Soler was once a student here. At 33 years old, he's now the principal - a job he's held for about a year and a half. And much of that time has been spent, roaming the hallways - talking to teachers and students.
(("Is this for English? I didn't know you were in this class. You didn't do your job last year. You need to do better."))
SOLER "Just because I'm the principal of the school, doesn't mean I sit in the office all day."
He's been busy - focusing first on changing the culture in the building. He, and Brizard, know the odds are against him. Unlike what happens in schools that are closed and reopened - often with a largely new staff - Soler's teachers haven't changed, nor have his students.
BRIZARD , "that's probably the hardest work that has to be done in the district. Because you're taking a ship when it's flying and you're fixing it. It's incredibly hard and does not come with a huge track of success. When you look across the country, transformations have not worked well in most places."
Teacher's union president Dr. Adam Urbanski also recognizes the difficulties Soler is facing.
URBANSKI "You can't commend progress. There are certain things in life you can't commend, you can't say have a good time tonight or I'll kill you. You can't do that. You have to want to have a good time. This new principal is saying to teachers, I can't do it without you. I just want to do everything I can to support you so you can get better results with the kids."
What's he's been doing seems to work according to Tesfalidet, who is planning to graduate in June.
TESFALIDET "Kids are behaving well. There's not a lot of fighting, not a lot of suspensions."
It appears the culture is changing, but so far other indicators aren't - graduation rates and test scores remain dismally low. The school is still at risk for being shut by the state.
SOLER "I don't know how long it's going to take for the state to pull that trigger."
But he's hoping its long enough for him to start getting results - and the district is supporting his efforts with a two-million dollar school improvement grant from the federal government. The grant requires the school to set up some sort of program to reward teachers for getting results. Brizard is pressing for a districtwide merit pay system, but that's a concept many teachers are uncomfortable with according to Urbanski.
URBANSKI "They worried that if they accepted the money, that the public will think, or the superintendent will paint it as if they are trying harder, they were holding back without the money, which is preposterous."
But without including some sort of incentive program as part of the grant proposal, the entire two-million dollars was at risk. So the teachers themselves designed a bonus program. Brizard agreed to compromise.
BRIZARD "So it's a way for us to start the conversation, and the fact that they designed it, I'm really interested to see what's going to happen here."
This is how it works: Under Soler's guidance, teachers have set a number of school-wide, rather than individual or even departmental, goals. The teachers are striving to accomplish things like raising standardized test scores by certain percentages and improving the student attendance rate. If the school meets these goals in June, every teacher in the building gets a two-thousand dollar bonus. If all of the goals aren't met, no one gets a bonus.
SOLER "I think we took a different approach to what you see across the country."
That's because in addition to the school-wide incentive, the teachers wanted something else. They asked for permission to put another thousand dollars toward every classroom, to help pay for supplies and field trips for their students.
SOLER: "I think our biggest focus is how do we create something that is supportive of teachers, allows us to still meet goals, so we don't shut down, right. We don't want to get this money and then we still shut down, right?"
As long as East High School remains open, this will not be the only incentive program for teachers. District officials are about to roll out details on another grant - one that will provide 26 schools in the district - including East -- with enough money to pay out 20-thousand dollar teacher bonuses. But these would only go to a small handful of teachers at each school. That, says Soler, is a conversation for another day.
For now, it's back to the hallways
You can listen to Superintendent Brizard's State of Our Schools address tonight at 6:30 on WXXI-AM 1370 and FM 91.5 HD2. We'll also stream it online.
Also, after the speech, you can join us for an online chat with Brizard at WXXI.org/chat.