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The Vargas plan

Rochester Business Journal
November 29, 2013

Those dubious about Bolgen Vargas' new plan to boost student achievement in the Rochester City School District might call it a handoff—or a Hail Mary, given the superintendent's own use of the phrase "last chance" to describe it.

Skepticism is understandable. Surely Mr. Vargas knew that unveiling his plan with scant detail would invite such a reaction. He has promised a fuller explanation next month, however, and he deserves a chance to deliver it.

No one doubts the need for bold action. Poor student performance has been the hallmark of the city schools for years.

This spring's Common Core test results for math and English language arts highlighted the problem; only some 5 percent of Rochester students met or exceeded the proficiency standard-the worst performance among the Big 5 city school districts.

What's much less clear, so far, is how the Vargas plan—to contract with local colleges and universities to manage one or more RCSD schools, starting in the 2015-16 academic year—would bring the promised rapid improvement in student performance.

To convince the community that his plan can work, Mr. Vargas must answer a number of questions. Among them:

Why would colleges and universities do a better job of running city schools than the district itself? Rochester has a number of successful higher-education institutions, but operating a college with selective enrollment is not the same as running an inner-city school.

How, specifically, would these improvements be achieved? Since 2011, the state has allowed districts to hand control of failing schools to qualified outside organizations, giving them "the powers and duties of the superintendent of schools." But on budgetary, staffing and other decisions, this means only they can make recommendations to the board, "consistent with applicable collective bargaining agreements."

What track record do other colleges and universities have in running public schools? The ability to "restart" schools in New York is very new; what's the evidence that this approach, as allowed by law here, actually works?

Mr. Vargas is right that a "sense of urgency" about improving student achievement is needed. He now must answer critics who suspect that his plan to hand off "as many district schools as possible" is more an act of desperation.

11/29/13 (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email

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