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'Do not take this away': Students and others urge city school board to keep UR-East partnership

During a public hearing, former Rochester school board member Ricardo Adams voiced his support for extending the East partnership between the district and University of Rochester
Noelle E. C. Evans
During a public hearing, former Rochester school board member Ricardo Adams voiced his support for extending the East partnership between the district and University of Rochester

It was standing room only at the East High School Collaboratorium – a multipurpose room where a public hearing was underway Tuesday night.

In the last ten years, the school has transformed from underperforming to surpassing benchmarks – but the program that was the catalyst to that transformation is due to expire at the end of next school year.

The Rochester City school board will have to decide: should the district extend the Educational Partnership Organization (EPO) agreement with the University of Rochester? The crowd participating in the public forum overwhelmingly said yes.

"Too many children are born in poverty in this city and never get out of poverty because the first step is a good education and the last is a good job,” said Mary Coffey, co-chair of the North Winton Village Association. The school is located near that neighborhood.

“So please, we plead: do not take this away,” she said. “And let it be an example, and please spread it to our schools. This is a moral and an ethical situation.”

Coffey was one of about 40 speakers at the forum. East high school senior Sara Adams was another.

"I'm in my last year here and the amount of experiences and accomplishments I've made are some that many people don't even get to have in a lifetime,” Adams said.

Adams listed examples reflected in the brief speeches of other students, parents and staff, including opportunities to earn college credits and work-based learning hours, and having additional support on site like mental health counseling, dental care, and a barber shop.

Others said on-campus eye exams, a food pantry, and a thrift store of clothing and school supplies have also set students up for success at East.

“The point is, this school community really does meet the students' needs and that's the most important thing,” Adams said. “For some students, their arrival to school and then in the morning is their only getaway. To take this away will not only be tragic for those students, but it will also hurt the entire community.”

The agreement between RCSD and the university’s Warner School is set to expire at the end of next school year. It began in 2015 when the New York state Education Department approved the EPO plan, which the city school district had requested.

The EPO was one option. Another was to close East High School after years of not meeting state standards.

“The conditions for teaching and learning in our hallways were very challenging,” Rochester Teachers Association representative of East High School teachers, Kyle Crandall said ahead of the meeting. “It was hard to get kids into class. And when we did have kids in class, it was really difficult to really be able to see a good result.”

A crowd packed into an auditorium for a hearing on the East Lower and Upper Schools partnership between the Rochester City School District and University of Rochester.
Noelle E. C. Evans
A crowd filled the Collaboratorium at East for a hearing on whether the district should extend its partnership with University of Rochester to operate East's Upper and Lower schools.

Instead of shuttering the school, the partnership allowed the university to manage and oversee school operations and curriculum, as well as renegotiate labor contracts, according to the Warner School. It was later renewed in 2021.

In the EPO’s first six years, annual suspensions dropped by 90%, the dropout rate decreased by 26 percentage points to 15%, and attendance went up 13 percentage points to 90%. The school’s four-year graduation rate jumped from 33% to 85% according to a report by the Warner School.

“I find it ironic that a graduation rate of above 80% would create such turmoil. This is something that should be celebrated,” former East High School superintendent Shaun Nelms said. “At some point, the school should go back to the Rochester City School District. But at that point, it should be when the city school district knows enough about the model to be able to replicate its successes.”

During the public forum, Nelms had been standing in the back of the room listening to testimonies. At the front of the room sat school board members and district leaders.

“I don't believe there's a need to have the EPO. Let me just put it out there,” School board president Cynthia Elliott said after the forum. “I think with the people that we have working in the district now, the superintendent, his staff, that we can do just as an exemplary job as the partnership with the EPO did.”

Elliott said she was concerned about cost. Under the current budget, the district allocated roughly $19.8 million for the East Lower School and Upper School.

"Can we continue to afford a superintendent and assistant superintendent of one school when we have a superintendent of more than 30 schools?" She said. “It's not fiscally responsible, and we're talking about taxpayer dollars.”

During the forum, former school board member Ricardo Adams stepped up to the podium.

“When it comes to being fiscally responsible, I believe we've moved the needle enough with the reconfiguration plan,” Adams said, "I say we look at other areas for becoming more fiscally responsible. Areas such as central office, consulting fees, trainings. Give us a three-year extension here.”

Social worker Eddie Blanding, who works at the school, also challenged the notion that cost would be a leading factor in the EPO agreement's termination.

“I've seen people on the board with longevity positions, longer than anything I've seen work in this district,” Blanding said, a nod to Elliott’s nearly 20 years on the school board. “In fact, the reality is I haven't seen the district do any lasting impact in decades.”

“I know we’re worried about money, and if we don't pay up front we will pay at the end,” he continued. “We will pay for what's working or we will give to what ain't working to end up paying jail systems incarceration ... because we’re talking about not paying up front.”

The crowd erupted into cheers, some jumped to their feet to give him a standing ovation.

Despite suggestions from Elliott that the university will likely not want to continue the EPO partnership, earlier this week UR president Sarah Mangelsdorf said otherwise.

“We'd like to at least have an extension of a few more years, if possible. We have been meeting with various stakeholders ... just to talk through, make our pitch for why we'd like to continue for a couple more years,” Mangelsdorf said. “It's not our decision to make, but we'd love to continue it if we could.”

Noelle E. C. Evans is WXXI's Murrow Award-winning Education reporter/producer.