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Support expanding for city charter schools

Rochester Business Journal
April 18, 2014

Starting in the fall, ninth-grade students at Rochester Prep will take field trips to Rochester Institute of Technology, working with tutors there and learning in a curriculum advised by experts from RIT.

The charter school in the city of Rochester was formed from a partnership of RIT and Uncommon Schools, a non-profit organization that manages public charter schools in urban areas with a goal of preparing students to attend and graduate from college.

It is one of 14 charter schools, including four to open this fall, in Monroe County—13 in the Rochester City School District and one in the Greece Central School District, the state Education Department reports.

Though Rochester Prep sets a precedent for cooperation between a local higher education institution and a charter school, it is part of a growing trend of support and involvement between the business and non-profit worlds and charter schools in the city of Rochester.

For RIT, the impetus for the partnership came in the form of what officials termed a “generous donation” from trustee Ronald Zarrella—a former CEO of Bausch & Lomb Inc.—who contributed the funds needed to support the development and delivery of RIT’s end of the partnership.

“No one is doing what we’re doing, in part because of that large gift,” said Katherine Mayberry, vice president for strategic planning and special initiatives at RIT. “It gives us a great chance to support the school and students and prepare them for college, though not necessarily RIT.

“This is not a recruiting initiative but a way to do whatever we can to fill the gap across the board between K-12 and college, particularly among low-income, minority students.”

Widespread support
RIT is not the only institution looking to aid the growth of charter schools in Rochester. Last week, the Max and Marian Farash Charitable Foundation announced grants totaling $1 million to six charter schools in Rochester. The grants fit with the foundation’s “Getting to 21” initiative, which also offers support to other educational organizations, including the Rochester City School District.

“This is part of the foundation’s larger focus on education, and this is something that the foundation did quite a bit of research on,” said Hollis Budd, the foundation’s executive director. “Based on that research, we made an investment in charters and believe that those charter schools are critical to educating Rochester’s children.”

The foundation aims to support “transformative endeavors” through funding to charter schools, and in 2014 it has two funding cycles for these schools. Both include grants for seed funding to new schools as well as grants for facility and operational enhancements.

Budd said proposals from charter schools must meet certain requirements, including using evidence-based practices and serving all children in the city.

“Charter schools have established themselves as viable alternative models within public education, and they complement the work and mission of public schools,” Budd said. “The foundation sees this as an important opportunity to serve Rochester’s children.”

Support for charters extends beyond the non-profit realm. A growing number of business leaders have gotten involved.

“We’ve seen a dramatic increase in support just in the past month,” said Joseph Klein, chairman and CEO at Klein Steel Service Inc. “There is a growing understanding in the business community of the quality education options that charter schools are giving, and more and more people are asking how they can help.”

Klein has been one of the most active members of the business community on charter schools. He created E3 Rochester, a non-profit dedicated to attracting charter schools to the city. The organization has recruited two schools slated to open in the fall, PUC Achieve Charter School and Vertus Charter School.

The E3 Rochester leadership also has been building support for charter schools, he said.

“We speak in a lot of venues, just telling people what we’re trying to do and the quality of schools we’re bringing in,” Klein said. “It used to just be a couple of us, but now there are between 20 and 25 people involved in these efforts, and it just seems to be spreading wildly.”

The situation is much the same nationwide, said Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in Washington, D.C. Because charter schools receive only about 70 percent of the funding that public schools receive per student, part of a charter school leader’s job is to raise money, Rees noted.

“We’ve seen a growth in support across the country from the philanthropic community, especially with the higher-quality charter management organizations,” she said.

Reason for support
Rees said she just returned from a trip to a charter school in Houston, where she noted a high level of support from the business community. For many supporters, investing in charter schools was seen in part as a way to ensure a viable economic future, she noted.

“In Houston, I asked a lot of the advisory members why there was such a high level of support, and they saw it as a long-term investment back to the business community,” she said. “Investing in traditional schools wouldn’t get a return the way charters do, and that investment goes a long way in making those cities more livable.”

The motivation is much simpler among members of the Rochester business community, Klein said.

“What we’re thinking is that this is our community and it’s wrong that our kids are not reading or learning math,” he said. “Many of the leaders I’ve spoken to about this were born in Rochester or lived here for 30 or 40 years, and they just want to make a difference.”

The “drumbeat of bad news” from the Rochester City School District, including the state’s recent mandate that East High be closed or replaced by a new school or charter, has brought more community leaders to search for an alternative to city schools, he added.

“We see a path toward making an impact, whether it’s in curriculum or allowing students to go into the summer for a week to show them what college is like,” Klein said.

Rees said charter schools nationwide have been attracting donors who otherwise might not invest in public education. Many leaders see in these charter schools the high expectations and measurable results they look for in the business world, she said.

“You see the evidence in test scores, graduation rates and how many low-income kids they’re sending to college,” Rees said. “That in itself gets people excited, the fact that the leaders of these schools have a no-excuses mentality that forces them to stretch the school day and school year. That mentality is really attractive to many philanthropists.”

RIT officials see another advantage in the partnership with Rochester Prep. The university wants to make use of its knowledge of what students need to be admitted to college and to complete a degree.

Students will make regular trips to the RIT campus, and courses within the charter school will focus on college readiness and college selection.

“We will be focusing on things like time management, study skills and test taking, behaviors they’ll need to learn sooner rather than later,” Mayberry said.

Higher education institutions are uniquely qualified to impart lessons on college readiness, she added.

“If you look at the difference between what high school teachers think seniors need to be prepared for college and what college professors are seeing in college freshmen in terms of needs, you would think they are on two different planets,” she said.

Though RIT has long partnered with city schools on many projects, the relationship with Rochester Prep empowers the university in a new way, Mayberry added.

“We’ve long worked with city schools, but it’s usually answering their call, as opposed to designing a program,” she said. “Those programs in the past relied for the most part on the goodwill and volunteerism of faculty and staff, and it can be difficult to see change or effect change in these big school districts.

“There’s nothing we can do about a lot of it, but charter schools are not hamstrung by tenure, by unions or by seniority. We do have to stick to the New York State curriculum, but it’s a whole lot more flexible.”

With the new, higher level of involvement, RIT will be able to assess its efforts more rigorously than was possible before, allowing the university to see what programs work best.

“We can’t do that with programs in the Rochester City School District as much because we don’t have the metrics,” she said. “We want to make sure we’re doing what works best, and here we’ll be able to see all of that.”

4/18/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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