Running out of time 

Significant cuts to All City High's teaching and non-teaching staff have set off alarms about that school's survival, but there's much more to it. The cuts have also ignited a much larger concern about the future of the Rochester school district and the role that charter schools will play in that future.

All City High's primary purpose is to support students in schools being phased out and closed — a process started under former Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard. Many of the students were at risk of dropping out, and All City offered them a more flexible schedule with an infusion of extra academic and emotional support.

The school's instructional staff will be reduced from about 120 to 64 this fall, says Rochester Teachers Association President Adam Urbanski. Guidance counselors and non-teaching staff will also be cut, he says.

"All City High needs a smaller staff because of declining enrollment — from more than 1,300 students at the beginning of the school year to 870 today to a projected 500 students next year," said district spokesperson Chip Partner in a written statement.

But Urbanski calls that explanation baffling. The district stopped accepting enrollment at All City midway through the year, he says, and no reason was given.

Some school board members say they're getting calls and emails about the All City reductions from teachers, students, and parents. And they say the decision, made by Superintendent Bolgen Vargas, caught them by surprise.

"Something is very inconsistent about all of this," says board member Van White. "All along we've been asking for data on All City High, and just two weeks ago we were told everything is fine there."

But Vargas says that All City High was always intended as an immediate option for students floundering or at risk of dropping out of the five schools that are being closed. And the school has fulfilled that mission, he says. Though Vargas says there are no immediate plans to close All City High, he says he wants to stop creating schools that are permanently in a remedial mode.

But what's the alternative?

According to Partner, Vargas wants to covert some failing schools to parent- and teacher-led charter "conversion" schools. Charter conversions are one of the options the State Education Department offers for turning around failing schools. But they aren't like most public charter schools; they can have unions and they are still part of the host district. A majority of the parents in the school would have to agree to the conversion, and the Rochester school board would have to approve the change.

"What I want to achieve is giving teachers and parents maximum autonomy and maximum accountability," Vargas said in a prepared statement. "The conversion concept holds great promise for making significant improvement in student achievement for a district that is running out of time."

Neither Urbanski nor Vargas would provide additional details except to say that they're in negotiations over the idea.

Urbanski says some school and city leaders predict that the proliferation of charter schools will dramatically shrink the district in the near future. One school board member says the district estimates losing 10 percent to 20 percent of its enrollment — though some observers say that's the low end. Urbanski says losses of that magnitude would be a disaster for city school students and parents.

"It would exacerbate the gulf between the haves and the have-nots," he says.

Urbanski says he understands that Vargas is trying to improve student achievement by offering innovative school choices for students and parents. Urbanski says he supports innovation, too, which is why he backs creating parent- and teacher-led community schools. Under that model, parents and teachers would have more say in the operation of the school, though they would have negligible influence on curriculum.

"Something is very inconsistent about all of this." Rochester school board member Van White.

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