February 2011 Issue
February 08, 2011

Rochester tries bold plan to boost student results

Author: Bernie Mulligan
Source: NYSUT United

Union members at Rochester's East High School have agreed to try a new approach to turn around a school that has spent three years on the state's list of underperforming schools.

The plan, negotiated last fall by Rochester Teachers Association members who work at the high school, is one of a variety of approaches that NYSUT supports. As part of an overall strategy for improvement, the plan will provide educators with financial incentives based on overall improved student performance.

Schools placed on the state list are eligible for a federal State Improvement Grant (SIG). The Rochester School District in September secured $9.9 million in federal grant money to support a strategic plan that includes the phase-out of eight high schools, the opening of new, high-performing schools, and the transformation of East High School. Part of the grant will support the East High program.

The one-year agreement for the current school year addresses factors important to the grade 7-12 school's 1,800 students, their families and the community — graduation rates, attendance and state standards, among others.
Ninety-two percent of union members in the school approved the plan, surpassing the required approval rate of at least 80 percent.

"We want to address the needs of all students at East High School and meet the incentive goals we have set in this contract," said RTA President Adam Urbanski, a NYSUT Board member. "We look forward to implementing these innovations to benefit students and the community."

Each of East High School's 165 teachers is eligible to receive up to $2,000 in incentives, but only if the whole school improves in critical areas.

Expectations for improving student performance this year include increasing the graduation rate from 45 percent to 52 percent and increasing the passing rate for the comprehensive Regents exam for English language arts to 66 percent, with similar guidelines for math assessments.

Attendance, a chronic problem at the high school, is also targeted. Other goals are to increase the overall attendance rate from 86 percent to 88 percent and cut student discipline referrals by 5 percent.

The plan differs from merit pay models that reward teachers based on individual performance. Rochester teachers believe that approach would be dangerous and divisive and decided instead to approach the issue with shared responsibility and teamwork, Urbanski said.

Each educator is eligible for up to $1,000 in additional instructional supplies and equipment.

The incentive plan is part of a larger commitment by union educators and administrators to turn the school around, and avoid more drastic measures, such as school closure, outlined by the state Education Department for schools deemed to be persistently low-performing.