New Beginnings for East High School: How a Local Partnership Led to Change

This month, my school community finds itself in the homestretch of a transformational five-year partnership with a local university. As we reflect on what we’ve learned and accomplished and proudly celebrate our successes, we are also already engaged in envisioning the next phase of our work and ways in which what we’ve learned can be shared and replicated within other schools.

In 2014, I had been a vice principal at East High School—the largest public high school in Rochester, New York—for five years, during which time we had engaged in substantial efforts to turn around a school that had been struggling for much longer than that. The principal had been ousted, the entire administrative team replaced. The school had received plenty of school improvement grant funding—we adopted Small Learning Communities and we implemented every intervention at our disposal. 

And yet, between 2009 and 2014, we only managed to raise the graduation rate from 39% to 44%, which meant we were still failing well more than half of our students and, therefore, our community at large.  Consequently, that year we were labeled an “out of time” school by the New York State Education Department. East, having been open since 1902, was facing the possibility of closure.

But how can you close the largest public high school in the city of Rochester? You can’t, really. The Rochester City School District’s Board of Education and the community were loud and clear about that, and through their advocacy and exploration of the varied options provided by the State of New York, the University of Rochester accepted a call to action to become an Educational Partnership Organization (EPO) with East. Since then, we have been engaged in a unique turnaround partnership with and, under the guidance of the University, enacting a plan focused on the following comprehensive, systemic changes to our school.

Structural Changes and Resource Allocation

  • Separation of the once school for Grades 7–12 into East Lower School (Grades 6–8) and East Upper School (Grades 9–12), with a unique Freshman Academy in the Upper School, which allows for smaller learning communities. These create an environment where students are more visible and receive more individualized attention, better relationships, more focused programming and leadership, and increased instructional quality. Teacher satisfaction has also improved.
  • Expansion of the school day by an hour and renovation of the master schedule to increase opportunities for intervention and credit accrual
  • Renegotiation of collective bargaining agreements and reapplication of staff, ensuring a commitment from every adult to being "all in"

School Culture 

  • Co-construction of a clear, shared mission and vision
  • Cultivation of trusting relationships and individual dignity to ensure students feel safe and valued through the implementation of restorative practices and Family Group—where every adult in the building has a group of 10 students that they meet with daily for 30 minutes to check in and connect
  • Development of a stronger school-going, academic culture characterized by increased attendance, heightened academic engagement, and a laser-like focus on graduation

Curriculum and Instruction

  • School-wide adoption, adaptation, or generation of original high-quality curriculum using the research-based “Understanding by Design” framework
  • Commitment to and implementation of a set of intentional, shared, research-based best practices across the school
  • Creation of a robust assessment system focused on student engagement, feedback, and use of assessment information to inform future instruction

Support Systems

  • Establishment of a coordinated network of supports aligned with the specific needs of our students, including:
    • Adequate support staff (additional school counselors and social workers)
    • Academic support periods
    • A comprehensive literacy program
    • A partnership with a multitude of community agencies that provide varied supports ranging from mentoring and tutoring to dental and medical services

As I list these for you, I’m transported back to the beginning of this journey we’ve been on, all the feelings around it, the efforts and strategies we needed to think through, and the approach we took to intentionally weave discrete ideas together. All of these efforts have been part of the redesign of an entire system, and I’m proud to say it has had a remarkable impact over the past five years, changing the trajectory of our school and the future of our scholars. 

Perhaps the most telling evidence of this change is the rise in our graduation rate to 70% this past June along with our eager anticipation that it will soar even higher in the next six months as the original five-year plan draws to close. 

Then what? Well, we are already now envisioning the next phase of our work here at what we now call East Lower and Upper Schools; what the partnership between our school, our district, and the University of Rochester looks like in the next five years; and the ways in which what we’ve learned can be shared with and replicated in other schools. Stay tuned!

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East Lower and Upper Schools has been named a 2020 Model School from ICLE and will present at the 28th Annual Model Schools Conference. Join us on June 28–July 1, 2020, in Orlando, Florida, at the Model Schools Conference and explore firsthand how you can connect with courage in your school or district to effect meaningful change.

Read more about how East Lower and Upper Schools transformed with this HMH-sponsored content on EdSurge.

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