• May 5, 2015
A year and a half ago, Warner School of Education Professor Stephen Uebbing had no idea he would be in charge of turning around a failing urban high school.
Yet, come July 1st, Uebbing will be doing just that as he becomes the acting Superintendent of the “new” East High School, one of the boldest initiatives undertaken in the District for quite some time. Recently, I had the chance to meet Uebbing with a few fundamental questions in mind: Why? And what will East be and not be?
As for why, Uebbing was candid, “Because we were asked.” Not once, but multiple times.The first three, Warner said thanks, but no thanks. The task looked daunting. Just getting the school board, two unions and state educational bodies on the same page would be a juggling act.
More importantly, Warner felt it did not have the necessary capabilities and resources. Its mission, vision and strategic planning did not include managing a troubled city school. For an offer out of the blue, the proposition was risky.
However, as Warner looked more closely, it became clear no good alternative options existed. The faculty was all too aware of the negative effect reorganizations have on school morale and performance. In the end, despite wading into uncharted waters, Warner knew it had to act.
For more on the perils of restructuring see Erica Bryant democratandchronicle.com/story/news/local/columnists/bryant/2015/04/24/erica-bryant-rochester-school-district-death-penalty/26297555/
As Uebbing talked, several key themes emerged. First and foremost, helping the students of East is “the morally right thing to do.” Warner faculty are motivated by a simple but strong sense of social responsibility, manifested as a “common moral purpose” – making the best urban school they can. For example, Warner Adjunct Professor Shaun Nelms left a highly desirable Superintendent position in Greece to come on board full time, driven by, in Uebbing’s words, “a passion for social justice.”
To some, such sentiments may ring hollow or self-serving. In reality, however, Warner does have more to lose than gain. Managing East will only be more work for overtaxed faculty. Failure—as happened in Buffalo when Johns Hopkins attempted to run several urban schools—will invite critique: the theories of the ivory tower fail when confronted with on-the-frontline reality. Success will take years, measured in small steps and often unquantifiable outcomes, easily undermined by uncontrollable externals.
As Uebbing looks out on the urban public educational landscape, he sees what we all see. White flight, bright flight, middle class flight. Parents moving out of the city or sending their kids to urban-suburban programs, private and charter schools, often leaving behind the neediest. Too often schools like East are filled with students who have chosen not to leave. Instead, he wants East to be a place where students choose to stay.
Specifically, Uebbing rattles off a (partial) list of how East will be different.
East will be a comprehensive community school organized into a Lower School (6 -8) and an Upper School (9 -12 with a Freshman Academy), eventually having 1350 students down from the current 1750. In line with successful national models, students will have extended learning time through a longer 7.5-hour day. As a community school, East eventually will be open evenings and weekends, serving as a focal point for the neighborhood and to provide academic and other support services to families. I can envision the library café bustling with volunteers, students and even a poetry slam.
Crucially, East will be comprised of small clusters (about 10 students each) who meet daily with a mentor (faculty, staff, or administrator). These “family groups” will address any and all issues that impact learning in and out of school. As we know, suspension and absentee rates in the RCSD are alarmingly high. To keep kids in school and to keep the peace, East will use a restorative justice approach through the systematic support of counselors, social workers, and comprehensive health services.
Academically, East is tapping into the expertise of Warner. Curriculum has been selected based on data driven research with extensive input from East teachers and University of Rochester faculty, building on successes in Rochester and across the country. Given its current population, East will offer a full continuum of programs for English language learners, including an enhanced dual language program for students whose home language is Spanish. As the overhaul progresses, Career and Technical Education programs will be expanded.
Implementing programs and protocols is inevitably a work in progress. The plan will evolve, but the driving principal won’t change: placing students and families squarely at the center of the schooling experience.
So what will this new East not be? When I discuss East/Warner, I sometimes get cynical responses. To ensure success, Warner will cherry pick. Only the supposed best and the brightest will be recruited, both openly and tacitly. While technically no student can ever be turned away, Warner will impose implicit requirements like entrance essays and interviews to discourage the unwanted. The University of Rochester’s goal is to create a mini University of Rochester, burnishing its image and funneling graduates to the River Campus.
Uebbing easily persuaded me otherwise. First, while the Warner presence will be there, it will be hard to find, metaphorically in small print and a light footprint. East High will be foremostly a public high school in the Rochester City School District, not an affiliate or brand of the University of Rochester.
If anything, the new East will be decidedly democratic, open and inviting to all. Put bluntly, Uebbing says the point is not to make East “a middle class white school.” Besides giving preference to those who live in the neighborhood, Uebbing will not be scouring the elementary and middle schools looking for prospects. Quite the reverse, the learning environment will be more conducive to struggling students from difficult backgrounds with multiple needs. More conducive to those who have supposedly “failed” before (when it is often the system that has failed them). The success of East will be judged not by how many grads it sends off to four year colleges.
Uebbing says the goal is not to make headlines (even as that is happening). As you read those headlines and stories, keep this in mind. Whether the reputation of Warner as a national school of education is helped or hindered, its faculty and graduate students are doing a hard job that is good for our community. By all measures, Warner should be applauded. Cheer them on.