The symposium was well-attended and encouraged conversation between educational leaders and current teachers. Many staff members and donors of UR were also in attendance.
The catch phrase of the three and a half hour discussion was “secret sauce”, referring to the best way to educate children and solve the educational crisis. Each leader spoke about past successes and their plans for the future years as the district continues to reform and improve.
President Seligman began the symposium with opening remarks about the history of reform in the RCSD.
In 2005, the mayor assigned a task force led by Albert J. Simone, eigth president of Rochester Institute of Technology. Their report, titled “Call to Arms”, detailed the state of the schools of RCSD and recommendations for improvement.
“In the ensuing years, too little has changed,” Seligman said.
Seligman stated that since the study, the graduation rate has only decreased. Currently, the graduation rate for RCSD is 46%, and only 10% of the students are considered ready for higher education.
Seligman called these statistics, “a crisis of fundamental consequence.”
He finished his remarks by thanking the audience for coming and stating that, “Together, we can make a difference.”
The newly-elected Mayor of Rochester Lovely Warren was next to take the podium.
“Even if we may not agree on how to reform, I suspect we do agree the status quo is unacceptable,” she said.
She stated that the so-called “reform mayors” who have come before her have publicly said that poverty doesn’t matter in regards to school reform.
“But unlike those mayors,” Warren said, “I do not speak theoretically about poverty.”
Her remarks began with stories of former students in the RCSD who lived below the poverty level who had beaten the odds and gone on to become successful adults. Warren said that for some of these students, zip code determined their future.
“Was poverty a factor that these people had to overcome? Absolutely,” she continued.
She then proceeded to clearly state her thoughts on education reform. “I believe in a single standard of educational quality,” she said.
She also expressed her support for pre-K education for all students, commonly known as “universal pre-K”.
Warren is also a strong supporter of expanding college access to students in the RCSD and fighting summer learning loss—the loss of knowledge that often occurs for students over the summer vacation.
Warren was followed by RCSD Superintendent Bolgen Vargas.
Vargas reiterated many of the goals expressed by Seligman and Warren and then stated his main goal: all children in RCSD schools will read at grade level by third grade.
According to Vargas, students who do not read at grade level in third grade are 13 times less likely to graduate high school than students who are able to read at grade level in 3rd grade.
One of his solutions is to empower parents and ask them to take part in their children’s learning. Parents are now asked to read to their children at home for at least 30 minutes a day.
“The school can do a lot, but we need the parents’ help,” Vargas said. “We can provide the opportunity, but we will also need the family.”
The ensuing panel discussion, titled “Learning from Success”, included school administrators, education researchers, and organizers of after-school and summer programs in Rochester. It was lead by Dean of Warner School, Raffaella Borasi.
The first panelist to speak was Associate Professor Kara Finnigan. She detailed the research that has been done nationally regarding urban schools. She also discussed methods that have been successful in other cities across the country.
The next two panelists to speak were Principal of Eugenio Maria De Hostos Charter School Jeffery Halsdorfer and Chief Operating Officer of Uncommon Schools of Rochester and Troy Anna Hall.
Both of these leaders spoke about the way their schools had exceeded state standards and predicted test scores given to them based on the number of free/reduced lunch students in their schools. They emphasized the importance of professional development for teachers to improve methods of instruction.
Two panelists who represented current reforms in RCSD were Director of Extended Learning and Intervention for RCSD Caterina Leone-Mannino and Principal of Charles Carroll School No. 46 T’Hani Pantoja.
They presented both positive aspects of the schools as well as ongoing challenges.
Another member of the panel was Chief Operating Officer for the Greater Rochester Summer Learning Association (SummerLEAP) Conger Gabel.
SummerLEAP is offered to select students that also qualify for free or reduced lunch; it offers educational summer programming to students who would not otherwise be able to afford it.
Vargas announced his long-term goal for SummerLEAP: to have their participant level at 1000 children in the summer of 2016. This summer, they are expecting 730 students.
The program is designed to decrease summer learning loss and to engage students in their education; 90% of the students who participate in this program go on to graduate from high school and 75% of them go on to higher education.
Gabel said it is not just about the education they receive while at camp but also the environment and support given to them by the camp staff.
“[While at camp], children are safe and they know it,” Gabel said. “And their parents know it. They know they are loved. They know they are cared about.”
President of Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection Augustin Melendez was the final member of the panel. The Hillside Work-Scholarship works with students in after-school programs to prepare them for careers after high school.
After all of the panelists spoke, the floor was opens for questions.
These included the value of college versus vocational school, addressing the importance of race in school, and the safety of students while they are at school.
The panelists received little time to debate and discuss these questions, and their answers had to remain brief.
The conference closed with statements from Warren, Borasi, Vargas, and Seligman. All made closing remarks of thanks to the UR for hosting and thanking the community members for attending.
“I come out of this with a clear sense of hope,” Borasi said. “The results we heard show that urban schools can indeed succeed academically.”
After the conference, Seligman said via email that he was happy with the success of the conference and that another would be held in the spring semester of 2015 to reevaluate and track progress.
“This is the first effort of its sort by the University,” Seligman said. “There will be others. But we needed to start with topics that suggested that, as difficult as these challenges are, there is also a basis for optimism.”
Sanguinetti is a member of the class of 2015.