East Upper & Lower Schools students were greeted by the clapping, chanting and cheering of teachers and cheerleaders as they began their first day of school on Tuesday, Sept. 9. For East students, this school year marks a significant change in how the schools will be run.
The state has consistently identified East as a “persistently struggling” school, meaning that East has been considered failing for ten or more years. After considering partnering with East in 2014, UR officially began serving as East’s Educational Partnership Organization (EPO) this July, with the New York State Education Department approving its plan and budget to improve East in February.
Deputy superintendent Shaun Nelms, who supervises the EPO plan’s execution and the hiring of staff, explained that East worked with the Warner School of Education’s Warner Center to redesign curriculum and instruction.
Students can now take up to ten classes a year, an improvement from the old model, and every student is now enrolled in double blocks of English and math.
Upper School students (students in grades 9 through 12) also have an expanded number of electives to choose from. Nelms hopes that this will “give them a more global experience of schooling but also allow them more opportunities to pick courses that engage them most, that would hopefully encourage them to go to school.”
Joanne Larson, the Warner School of Education’s Michael W. Scandling Professor of Education and Chair of the Teaching and Curriculum Program, is working at East while on sabbatical from Warner. She noted that attendance was mixed on the first day, with 91 percent of Lower School students (grades 6 through 8) and 74 percent of Upper School students in attendance on the first day.
In contrast to 84 percent of first-time freshmen, only 43 percent of freshmen who were repeating the grade attended school on the first day.
Nelms said that the school still struggles to meet the attendance needs of students “who are overage and under-credit, meaning that these students have been held back or retained in ninth grade multiple years.”
“These are students who are disengaged from traditional schooling, so we’re trying to support them getting their GED or getting them to come back to school to try and graduate in the next four years,” Nelms said. In fact, Nelms added, over 76 percent of students in ninth grade have been retained at least once during their overarching school career.
As part of an effort to improve social and emotional support for students, Larson said that East, in addition to hiring more counselors and social workers, is emphasizing relationships with students and “restorative practices” over punishment.
Students now meet in daily “family groups” for half an hour each day. These groups consist of 10 to 12 students and an adult working at the school, whether it be a teacher or an administrator. The hope, Larson said, is that students will develop relationships in these groups so that they have the “opportunity to share experiences” and will ensure that “we’re not going to have any youths who are not noticed and missed if they don’t come.”
Last year, the school surveyed over 1,300 students and asked them what they wanted to see, Nelms said. The students wanted drivers education, which is a program that will start shortly. They also wanted support in classes where they had failed, so they received double blocks of English and math.
“Things weren’t being done to them, but with them,” Nelms said. “The minute in which East becomes an adult-driven environment is the minute we lose the focus that we began with.”
Lai is a member of
the class of 2018.