After Two Tough Years in Rochester, School Reformers Look to the Future

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By Ann Bradley

Rochester, NY--Educators participating in Rochester's nationally recognized school-improvement effort describe the experience as a bit like building an airplane while it is taxiing down the runway.

They say the shared sense of urgency that two years ago spawned the nation's most dramatic teacher contract--and has since fueled several other major educational changes in the city--has not waned. But along the way, the ride has been bumpy as the school system has retooled itself.

As the third year of the contract begins, "I get a sense that people are getting a little more realistic," said Adam Urbanski, presi6dent of the Rochester Teachers Union. "The first year was the year of euphoria."

"The second year, we said things are worse than they were before the contract," he added. "Now, there's the recognition that this is damn hard, but attitudes have changed. People believe this is for the long haul."

The union contract, which expires in June, gave teachers the opportunity to earn as much as $68,900 a year in exchange for greater accountability. The aim, according to Mr. Urbanski and Peter McWalters, the superintendent of schools, was to increase student achievement by changing a system that was failing too many children.

No one in Rochester is making any claims to have turned around a school system in which about 45 percent of 7th, 8th, and 9th graders fail a core academic subject and approximately 30 percent of the students drop out.

But union officials, teachers, school-board members, and administrators do believe they have begun to shape a new culture that offers great promise of future progress. Along with pain and frustration, they say, have come new attitudes.

"In a sense, the frustration is a positive indicator, as long as that frustration is used to move people along," said Benjamin L. Douglas, president of the board of education.

"I would be more concerned if I heard nothing," he said, "because that would say there is no change, and that people are not trying to move out of their old modes."

Too Much, Too Fast?

Still, the Rochester experiment is not without its detractors. Critics of the educational changes being made here say that too much is happening at once.

Ironically, the Urban League of Rochester, which led the community's call for school improvement in 1986, criticized the school district in an April report for failing to present a coherent picture of the district's educational goals.

"In educators' rhetoric," the report states, "the terms 'reform' and 'initiative' have come to be used almost indiscriminately to describe any improvement effort, big or small. As more and more activities become characterized as 'initiatives,' we become increasingly confused about what the changes are that we are trying to monitor."

The programs spawned by the teachers' contract--such as a career ladder for teachers, systemwide school-based planning, peer intervention, and mentoring of new teachers--have attracted national attention. But Rochester's educational efforts go far beyond changing the teaching profession.

Last year, the city's secondary schools were restructured to create middle schools. District officials estimate the change affected 60 percent of the district's secondary stu4dents and 50 percent of its secondary teachers.

In addition, the central office was reorganized to remove a layer of bureaucracy between principals and the superintendent by creating four "area superintendent" positions.

Magnet programs have been established at many schools, and students in grades 9 through 12 can choose to attend any high school in the city, provided the schools remain racially balanced.

The upshot of all the change is that so many new programs are afloat that "it's hard to hold anyone accountable, because we have to put out too many brush fires," Archie Curry, a member of the board of education who voted against the teachers' contract, said.

"We're a long time from being even 50 percent successful," Mr. Curry said, adding that he would have preferred that some programs, including school-based governance, have been phased in instead of being required at schools that might not have been ready.

And administrators, who filed suit in an unsuccessful attempt to block a peer-assistance program that was incorporated into the teachers' contract, remain critical of the reforms.

Richard Stear, president of the Administrators and Supervisors Association of Rochester, said the district has erred in leaving administrators out of many of the changes sweeping through the district. Many of the initiatives, he said, are "more form than substance."

For example, Mr. Stear said, many school-site planning teams are talking about the same things that have been discussed at schools for years: attendance, discipline, and parental involvement.

Mr. Stear also said he has not noticed a dramatic change in the schools' culture.

"The same people who were involved then are involved now," he said. "The people who weren't performing then aren't performing now."

School-Based Planning Teams

After organizing last year, planning teams--the majority of whose members are teachers--are in place in each of the district's 49 schools. The teams are chaired by the school principal and include parents and students in the high schools. The teams are now drafting "improvement plans" that will spell out specific performance goals for their schools.

After being reviewed by the district, the plans will be formally presented to the community. At the end of the year, each school will take stock of its performance and make public how it intends to address continued problems.

Mr. McWalters, the superintendent of schools, said he views the individual school plans as the best way to hold schools accountable for their own performance. "Over time," he noted, "the same team that is setting the goal can be held accountable for the quality of the people in the building, including the principal."

During the past year, planning teams participated in hiring six principals. Each team recommended three top candidates for the position to Mr. McWalters, who made the final decisions.

For Mary Ferrara Toole, a 5th-grade teacher with 20 years' experience in Rochester schools, participating in hiring a principal for her school was "the most difficult thing I've ever done as a professional."

"It was also the most enjoyable," she added. "I truly felt like a professional."

Ms. Toole, who was vice president of the teachers' union during a strike in 1980, said she had felt "doubtful and skeptical" about ratifying the union contract.

She and her colleagues had seen "a lot of ideas come and go," she noted. But this time, the climate of her school was changed.

"I have felt so renewed and so enthusiastic about coming back to school this year and working with an individual I had a hand in picking,'' she said. "If we're enthusiastic, it has to rub off on the kids."

For the majority of school-based planning teams, however, such concrete results have not materialized.

Joanne Scully, who, as director of school improvement, is the district's liaison with the planning teams, said last year's middle-school reorganization disrupted the teams, which she described as being at "a very, very early level of development."

Also, she noted, some teams have bogged down in technical discussions of how many meetings to hold, what will be on the agenda, and whether the meetings will be open to the public.

By 1991-92, the school-based teams are to be involved in budgeting, according to the superintendent's plan for redesigning the district. Initially, several schools will participate in a pilot school-based budgeting process.

Balking At Change

District officials say they have found that some of the school-based planning teams are wary of adopting new ways of doing business or of departing from established educational methods.

In a decision that has caused concern throughout the school system, for instance, the planning team at Frederick Douglass Middle School last fall rejected an innovative program proposed by two teachers.

The teachers envisioned creating a middle-school "cluster" of teachers and students, including some who were learning-disabled. Changes in the curriculum would have required longer class periods.

At the time, the planning team was new and members felt they needed time to adjust to the changes that had already been made in the school system, said Rose Marie Sparagana, a librarian at the school who is a member of the team and favored the proposal.

"It's really sort of a shocker to find that some of the school-based planning teams are more conservative than the district," she noted.

Nancy Sundberg, one of the teachers who wrote the proposal, called the experience "disappointing and frustrating."

She attributed the planning team's uncertainty about her project to unease with its own power.

"We were in a position where it was unclear how much the central office was relinquishing its reins," she said.

Recently, Mr. McWalters, Mr. Urbanski, and Marc S. Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, a think tank based here, met to discuss how to ensure that promising ideas are given a chance.

Mr. Tucker, whose center provided workshops for school planning teams, said the aim of the new form of management is to transform a school system that is "overwhelmingly bureaucratic and hostile to fresh ideas" into one that welcomes them.

"In the best of all possible worlds, they are going to say 'bingo, this is where we want to go,"' Mr. Tucker said of effective school-site planning teams. "And that has happened. But if they represent a group of people that is not especially thoughtful, it is also possible they're going to be people who will protect the status quo."

Despite the problems in retraining people to become risk-takers, school officials are confident that the teams will make decisions that will benefit students.

"School-based planning is not an outcome in itself, it's a process,'' Ms. Scully noted. "We have absolutely no idea how much time it will take to fundamentally change the attitudes of our practitioners and our parents."

Career In Teaching

Meanwhile, district and union officials acknowledge, any assessment of Rochester's school-improvement effort must take stock of the impact of the 1987 contract with the Rochester Teachers Union.

At the heart of the contract is a four-step career ladder that enables teachers to remain in teaching and receive the salary and added responsibilities typically associated with jobs in administration.

It also incorporated the district's existing Peer Assistance and Review Program, which provided mentoring for new teachers and assistance for veteran teachers who had received unsatisfactory evaluations. The teachers who act as mentors are now lead teachers.

The Career in Teaching program, which is administered by a 10-member panel made up of representatives of the district and the teachers' union, recommends what types of lead-teaching positions to create. Lead teachers must have 10 years' experience in Rochester.

In addition to acting as mentors, lead teachers are now working as demonstration teachers, applying a new elementary-school curriculum in classes open to visitors; coordinators for staff development in the mentor-intern program; coordinators of course offerings in the city's Teacher Center; and coordinators for the Career in Teaching panel's efforts to redesign the district's performance-appraisal system for teachers.

Currently, 37 of the city's 2,500 teachers are working as lead teachers, according to Thomas Gillett, chairman of the joint governing panel and the union's chief negotiator. Nine more teachers have been identified for lead teaching positions but have not begun their assignments, he said. The school district has committed to funding an additional 20 positions this year.

The panel, which is reviewing suggestions for new types of lead-teaching positions, chooses the lead teachers from applications submitted by interested teachers. For the mentor-teacher positions, the panel received as many as five applications for each job, Mr. Gillett said. Other positions drew only two or three applications.

Mr. Urbanski attributes the small number of applications to teachers' uncertainty over what would be expected of lead teachers, and to "love of classroom teaching."

The Career in Teaching panel also administers the peer-intervention program, in which lead teachers coach tenured teachers rated as "unsatisfactory" by their principals.

An administrator must recommend that a teacher be considered for intervention, and teachers must agree in writing to participate in the program.

To date, according to Mr. Gillett, 28 teachers have been recommended for the intervention program. The panel deemed half of the recommendations inappropriate. Four teachers have successfully completed the program; two resigned during the intervention process; and eight remain in intervention.

"I'm not satisfied with the numbers," Mr. Gillett said, adding that the program's greatest test will come when a mentor teacher recommends that a teacher be dismissed.

That has not happened yet, he said. But when it does, he added, the school district will be hard pressed to avoid the expensive process of firing a tenured teacher.

"If all of that isn't convincing," he said of the extensive intervention program, "then I think we've missed it."

Mr. Urbanski suggested that few teachers have been referred for intervention because principals, who tried to block peer intervention, have refused to cooperate with a program they see as usurping their duties.

"They are right that they haven't had people referred," said Mr. Stear, president of the administrators' union. "This is for really dysfunctional people who are one step from having their salary withheld, and it's going to be a very small number of people, in my mind."

Union Discontent

At a recent meeting of the teachers' union's Representative Assembly, an increasingly restive audience peppered Mr. Gillett with questions about the lead-teacher positions.

Some union members did not know whether the lead-teacher positions had been filled, or, if they had, what the lead teachers were doing. Others wanted to know how much time lead teachers were spending in the classroom.

Some assembly members focused on whether any lead positions had been created in which teachers would take on difficult assignments, such as teaching classrooms of children from more than one grade.

Mr. Urbanski--who has been quoted as saying that lead teachers would be the "Clint Eastwoods" of teaching, taking on the toughest assignments in the most difficult schools--told the assembly that the district has had trouble identifying which teaching jobs should be considered the most difficult.

Despite the complaints, Mr. Urbanski said he viewed the session as proof that teachers have accepted the "lead teacher" concept.

"What they are saying is how can we make this the way it is supposed to be--more professional and more credible," he said. "That's a major, huge step forward."

Mr. Gillett termed the level of discontent expressed at the union4meeting "as bad as it's gotten." The agreement to create the Career in Teaching program does not specify that lead teachers must take on the most difficult assignments, he said, but that perception exists among the rank and file.

"Unfortunately, some Representative Assembly members kind of bit into that like the junkyard dog and won't let go," he noted. "The politics are such that we must and will address it."

Creating a 'Home Base'

Some teachers also have been hesitant to embrace the "home-base guidance" program in the middle and high schools. Under the program, teachers are assigned to small groups of students to establish continuity for the students during their school years.

The home-base teacher is expected to "maintain a direct line of communication between the home and the school, and among subject teachers," according to school-district guidelines.

Skeptics contend that the idea ignores the reality of a highly mobile student population. Others suggest that the role of counselor is inappropriate for teachers.

"Generally speaking, it might be a good idea at the middle-school level, but I'm not sure it's a good idea at the high-school level," said Barry Robbins, a Latin and philosophy teacher at Monroe Middle School and Wilson Magnet High School.

"Students, after they reach a certain age, don't need that kind of support," he said. "It's little more than a study hall."

At East High School, teachers resisted the idea for most of last year. Finally, the school-based planning team came up with the idea of sharing home-base guidance duties with the school's administrative staff. The proposal reduced the number of students assigned to each faculty member and helped the school move toward carrying out the idea.

Now, Mr. Urbanski said, he would like to see all Rochester schools use the East High model for home-based guidance.

At No. 9 School, a 1,000-student school in a low-income area, teach8ers were initially reluctant to make visits to their students' homes, said Ana Colon, a parent who sits on the school's planning team.

The teachers were afraid they would not be safe in the neighborhood, so they agreed to make the visits in pairs shortly before school opened.

"It was shocking," Ms. Colon said of the teachers' attitudes. "I come from there, and it's not bothering me. The kids have to deal with it, so why shouldn't we as adults?"

Catherine Spoto, who is vice president of the board of education and campaigning for re-election, said she was at No. 9 School on the morning the teachers embarked on their visits.

"You saw all these teachers walking out into the community," she recalled. "It was such a great picture, with the housing project across the street. Some of the parents had gotten all dressed up."

Whatever a teacher's attitudes, managing a home base of young students presents a new challenge. Walter Jahnke, a lead teacher who spoke at the recent union meeting to reassure his colleagues, said he has an ''at risk" home-base group of students, most of whom are 16 and in the 9th grade.

"Two of them were arrested yesterday," he told his colleagues. "I was on the phone all last night."

Parental Support

To help bridge the acknowledged gap between schools and parents here, a group of 40 parents formed the Neighborhood Diplomatic Corps this year. The volunteers received six hours of training to qualify as diplomats. They are available to assist parents who want to visit their child's school but do not feel welcome, or to accompany a teacher on a visit to a student's home.

Parents serving on school-based planning teams say they embraced the chance to contribute to their children's educations.

Some parents--such as Marvin Jackson, a Kodak engineering technician who serves on the Charlotte Middle School team--say they can bring important expertise to the school teams. "Teachers don't know what industry wants," Mr. Jackson explained. "To bridge that gap, they need someone in industry."

Darryl W. Porter, a colleague of Mr. Jackson's at Kodak who also serves on the school council, said initial meetings were tense.

Parents felt intimidated by the teachers' command of educational jargon and did not feel certain they were welcome in the school, he said. Teachers "felt parents were coming in to make trouble," Mr. Porter said. "And the district didn't know what was going on. They were just as far removed from the real issues as you can get."

Both Mr. Porter and Mr. Jackson said their main objective in serving on the school-based planning team is to get the school the respect and support they believe it deserves. Both men said other schools with highly touted magnet programs have received a disproportionate share of attention.

"Fifty-one percent of our job is going to be public relations," Mr. Porter said.

Mr. Jackson agreed: "The teachers are willing to do their jobs, and we are willing to support them."

To further draw parents and the greater Rochester community into the school system's mission, the National Center on Education and the Economy will conduct an eight-month "Expectations Project" to survey the community and identify the goals it holds for its students.

The project will include a poll by Louis Harris and Associates, focus-group sessions, telephone interviews, and community forums, Mr. Tucker said. The project has received $200,000 from the Eastman Kodak Company and $50,000 from the Gannett Foundation.

In addition, Mr. Tucker and Mr. Urbanski are teaching a graduate-level course at the University of Rochester on educational reform that includes four community lectures on education. The lecture series is a further attempt to inform the community about the challenges facing the district, Mr. Urbanski said.

'Long Run' Solutions

In fact, the greatest threat to the "Rochester Experiment," Mr. Urbanski believes, is a lack of understanding of the complexity of restructuring schools.

"I think the community has been generally supportive, or at least tolerant of the reforms," he said, "but I think it was not because they were so informed about the issues and the complexities, as it was because they think none of us are smart enough to invent a system that's worse."

A recent article in the City Newspaper here headlined "School Reform: And Now For the Results" indicates that Mr. Urbanski may have a difficult time persuading skeptics to be patient.

"It is not premature to ask if there is enough evidence to continue the experiment," Mr. Urbanski said. "But asking, 'Have you fixed the problem?' is premature. All the solutions ought to be in the long run."

In looking forward to negotiations for the next union contract, Mr. Urbanski said he intends to "establish as a pattern the maintenance of competitive wages for teachers." In addition, he foresees adjusting some aspects of the school-reform plans, such as removing a provision specifying that each school principal chair the school-based planning team.

"In instances where the principal is a turkey, school-based management is not proceeding," he said.

And East High's decision to spread home-based guidance duties among both teachers and administrators could provide a districtwide model, he suggested.

In the meantime, the district is expected to release its most recent data on student performance later this month, and the school-based planning teams will make their first performance reports in June. Educators here say they do not expect to see dramatic improvements.

"They asked for the results the day after we announced reform," said Mr. Douglas, the board of education president. "The thing I think we'll have to do is continually bring the public in to have them look over our shoulders at the results. We've moved a tremendous distance and we need to be able to define that for the taxpayers."

The district faced a tough budget battle last spring in trying to secure enough state funding to continue its programs, noted Ms. Spoto, the board's vice president. Strong support for Rochester's initiatives from the powerful New York State United Teachers and the local legislative delegation enabled the school district to lobby the state for enough money, she said.

"What we need to be able to demonstrate, if we're going to be able to keep all these people supportive--from the senior citizens to parents--is that we in fact are making incremental progress," Ms. Spoto noted. "I think we will."

Vol. 09, Issue 07

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