This blog post originally appeared on EdSurge as sponsored content from HMH. An additional question and answer have been included in this version of the Q&A with Superintendent Shaun Nelms.
In 2015, East Upper and Lower Schools—formerly East High School—in Rochester, New York, entered into a unique partnership between the New York State Education Department, Rochester City School District, and the University of Rochester. This partnership, referred to as the Educational Partnership Organization, aims to curtail a trend of academic underperformance and high rates of truancy, absenteeism, and dropout, which had plagued East High for a number of years.
Leading the charge in this effort is Dr. Shaun Nelms, superintendent of East Upper and Lower Schools and director of the Center for Urban Education Success, which supports K–12 urban schools on a local and national level and aims to replicate East’s model nationwide. We sat down with Dr. Nelms to discuss the challenges and opportunities presented in this partnership and to learn what this work means for him personally.
HMH: How did this partnership come about?
Shaun Nelms: The University of Rochester was approached by the Rochester City School District’s Board of Education in Rochester, New York, to assume responsibility for East High School, which was the lowest-performing school in the lowest-performing district in New York State. East had already attempted several reform approaches and faced sanctions by the New York State Education Department. Among the options were school closure, state control, conversion to a charter school, removal of half the students and staff, and the creation of the Educational Partnership Organization model we have now—a partnership with a local entity. The University of Rochester became that education partner.
HMH: What are the benefits of the partnership for East Upper and Lower Schools?
SN: The university negotiated with all the local unions to have a longer school day, additional teacher pay for more hours worked, a standards-aligned curriculum and additional resources to address social-emotional support for students. It meant hiring additional counselors and social workers and partnering with community agencies that support students with high ACE scores (adverse childhood experiences). The agencies would connect students to resources in the community.
HMH: How does the University of Rochester benefit from this partnership?
SN: This initiative is a university-wide project with university-wide commitment that embraces our “all in” philosophy. We have students and faculty throughout the university volunteering to tutor students here. And we started hiring some of these volunteers permanently.
The school of nursing and medicine operates our health clinic, the Flaum Eye Institute has partnered with our optics program to make and distribute over 1,000 pairs of glasses, and the Eastman Institute for Oral Health provides dental cleaning on our campus. University staff have helped to produce our school newspaper and run the debate team, and even the President of the Board of Trustees at the University of Rochester, Richard Handler, has required students he supports financially to volunteer at East. These scholars, the Handler Scholars, are comprised of first-generation students at the University of Rochester from very impoverished settings throughout the world.
HMH: How has this partnership changed East?
SN: The increased graduation rate is indicative of our students’ understanding of having a culture of life beyond high school. When we first arrived, our graduation rate was trending toward 19 percent. By the end of that year, the graduation rate was 33 percent, which is still abysmal, but by the end of year four, our rate was about 70 percent.
We’ve seen incredible growth from students going from below basic to proficient in literacy. We modified our school-day schedule to double block English and math for most students. We’ve been able to use technology to identify where our student needs are academically and recreate a system based on that need.