In November 2020, ROC the Future—an alliance of more than 60 leading Rochester-area institutions and community partners—released its eighth annual State of Our Children report card. Year over year, the report outlines key data and metrics across the district that track progress and student outcomes in areas such as assessment performance and graduation rates.
A silver lining amid a challenging year emerged from the 2020 data, a year further impacted by a global pandemic: High school graduation rates in the Rochester City School District (RCSD) continued to climb, rising to 68% compared to 63% the year prior.
“From a historical perspective, 2020 was significant,” ROC the Future Director Jackie Campbell said. “In 2013, before I came to ROC the Future, the graduation rate was at 48%. This represents a nearly 20 percentage point increase, which is a significant improvement.”
The 2020 data reflects a positive trend of gradually improving high school graduation rates within the RCSD. In the past five years, the district-wide rate has risen by 17 percentage points, with several schools driving the upward trend, including James Monroe High School, Northeast College Preparatory High School, and Joseph C. Wilson High School.
“In telling the story of RCSD, it’s important to highlight that there are multiple schools that are performing very well and are performing as well as or even better than some suburban schools in our area,” said Dr. Stephanie Townsend, Director of Research and Analytics for ROC the Future. “It’s important for people to understand that it’s not an anomaly, and it’s not just one school that’s exceptional.”
Alliances with organizations like ROC the Future are just one piece of the puzzle that works to identify strategic and evidence-based approaches that improve overall school readiness and performance. ROC the Future collaborates closely with the district on areas where they’re looking to improve, facilitating working groups and discussions around those particular objectives.
“The thing about collective impact is that we can all play a role in improvement—it’s not just at the school building level in terms of our partnership and engagement with the district,” Campbell said. “We’re looking across systems to identify things that are missing between schools and how the community can lead in providing that support. It’s about better aligning our relationships and focus to help everyone meet specific targets and goals.”
“We can’t go in and change a school,” Townsend added. “But what we can do is change what’s going on in the community outside the school. It’s complex change versus one-off interventions. It’s about changing the climate in the schools in a way that’s more supportive of youth succeeding.”
From another standpoint, the development and facilitation of specific programs and initiatives at the school level have proved essential in changing the narrative and driving improvement in graduation rates. Both Campbell and Townsend credit the efforts of the schools individually in creating more opportunities and support for students to engage in rigorous academic preparation and success.
Diving into the Data: Creating Support Systems
Collectively, measuring and tracking success is fairly consistent at James Monroe High School, Northeast Preparatory High School, and Joseph C. Wilson High School. Each school tracks everything from grade point averages and accumulated credits to performative assessment data and more.
Northeast Preparatory High School relies heavily on a targeted cohort tracking model to monitor student progress and engagement. Teachers and administrators leading each cohort meet on a weekly basis to align not only on goals and focus areas, but also to identify the individualized needs of students within a cohort, digging deep into assessment data to formulize plans that provide students with the necessary support systems and services to keep them on track.
“We’ve created structures that allow us to get to know our students and families on a personal level and that’s attributed to us being able to better serve our students,” said Nakia Burrows, assistant principal at Northeast Preparatory High School. “Our cohort tracking process of analyzing data and knowing students’ status allows us to provide additional wraparound services for them and also establishes relationships and buy-in with our students’ families.”
“The cohort tracking digs deep,” adds David Passero, principal of Northeast Preparatory High School. “We triage every single week and make individualized plans, which can include referrals to outside agencies or to our academic intervention team to assist students both academically and socially-emotionally.”
Joseph C. Wilson High School is the only International Baccalaureate (IB) high school in the district. Two years ago, the school implemented the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program, which was designed to ensure that all students, especially middle-of-the-road students, are equipped with the academic preparation required for eligibility to higher education institutions.
“The program supports students who may be the first in their family to go to college,” said Julie VanDerwater, principal of Joseph C. Wilson High School. “Students take elective courses with an AVID teacher where they learn the soft skills for college readiness that we sometimes take for granted, such as note taking, organization and communication. When I got to Wilson five years ago, there were only 15 total students in the IB program. Since implementing the AVID program, we’ve quadrupled the number of students who have received their IB diploma or certificate.”
At James Monroe High School, roughly 45% of students are English Language Learners (ELL). For the past three years, the school has offered the Seal of Biliteracy, an award that recognizes students who have obtained proficiency in two or more languages by the time they graduate.
“There’s double accountability for those learners in our school, but we’ve always embraced that,” said Sandra Chevalier Blackman, former principal of James Monroe High School. “It’s rich, it’s culture, it’s language, and we asked ourselves what else we could offer to this population of students. For the past three years, our school has led the district in total graduates from the program. Across Rochester, we awarded more than 34 graduates the Seal of Biliteracy.”
Amid the pandemic, certain data points and performance indicators have shifted as models of delivery and instruction have changed to comply with health and safety guidelines. Some of the new metrics being brought into consideration now are students’ access to technology, Wi-Fi, attendance, and overall engagement. Schools are evaluating participation in a new light and working to provide opportunities outside of the school day to expand student learning. Credit recovery for certain courses or marking periods remains another critical component to fostering improvement.
“At the end of the marking period, we spend a lot of time looking at student grades and encouraging teachers or support personnel to work closely with students one-on-one. It gives students a chance to go back and revisit material during the school year before they’ve failed the course entirely,” said Amy McLaughlin, IB/AVID Coordinator at Joseph C. Wilson High School.
“Now, with online learning, if a student is out for a couple of days, they have the opportunity to get caught up at home,” added Anthony Bianchi, assistant principal at James Monroe High School. “It’s going to create a sense of ownership for students but will also ease the feeling of being far behind if they’re not there in person.”
Lifting Every Voice: Playing to Students’ Passions and Interests
At each school, relationship building, collaboration, and playing to students’ strengths are key factors in changing the climate and creating an environment that champions growth.
At Northeast Preparatory High School, administration and faculty have taken a truly democratic approach to student engagement and driving school improvements through the formation of student voice committees. Committees at each grade level work together to analyze the school community, identify problems or needs, conduct research, and present possible solutions to administration and teachers that can improve the school as a whole. Focus areas include matters related to social justice, community building, restorative practices, and more.
“Our future is very focused on student voice and best practices,” Passero said. “We wanted our students to have a platform where they felt free to express their thoughts and suggestions. Our student voice committees are actively engaging in research in and outside of the classroom by connecting with community partners who specialize in some of these areas. They then provide feedback and solutions to our administrators along the way around how we can improve our school community and hopefully the greater community, as well.”
Similarly, James Monroe High School found that providing students with an active role in designing and deciding what the school curriculum will look like can make a big impact in encouraging and retaining students. Capitalizing on student interest and involvement in sports, the school has created a sports management advanced Regents program that will align students’ athletic passion with their academic preparation.
“We not only want to see our students be the players in the field, we want them to see themselves as the coach or the manager, too,” Chevalier Blackman said. “Student feedback allowed us to make an assessment that strengthens our programs and plays to their passions.”
At Wilson, student voice also funnels through community-building efforts to maintain engagement and relationships.
“We try to instill daily engagement, even through the challenges,” VanDerwater said. “My second year here, I got rid of my desk, because most of my conversations with students, teachers, and families were centered around a table, working together to solve a problem or solicit feedback about what they want to see from the school.”
The Road Ahead
As RCSD transitions back to a hybrid learning model with more in-person instruction, certain modes of delivery, assessment protocols, and procedures may inevitably change. However, what’s clear is that the focus on relationship building and commitment to students’ success is unwavering.
“We try to make sure we have something for everybody, including the resources available to support and form relationships with our students,” McLaughlin said. “We couldn’t do what we do without the way our staff has come together and really formed the bonds we all have with the students.”Read more