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Report Paints Troubling Picture of Monroe High School

Consultant finds friction between the principal and teachers, student behavior problems, and issues with the extended day program.
At 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday, students streamed out of Monroe High School. Parents lined up in cars outside, waiting for their children. It looked like dismissal time. But it wasn't. This was the start of 9th period.

"They're just wasting their time in there," said a parent picking up her daughter. "They're not like really doing anything productive."

Monroe has 1,100 students. Nearly one-third speak English as a second language. Nearly one-quarter have special needs. The graduation rate and test scores are lower than the district's already low averages. 

Yet instead of attending the school's extended day program, known as the 9th period, News 8 observed dozens of students in grades 7 through 12 wandering the neighborhood. They returned an hour later to catch the bus home.

"Everybody leave at 9th period. What they going to do? Suspend everybody?" said student Fantasia Washington.

The extended day program was among issues identified by a consultant hired by the district to assess Monroe's progress in improving student performance. In October, the school board hired WestEd for $117,000. The 50-page report was completed in January.

A major theme of the WestEd report is the bad relationship between the principal and teachers. Armando Ramirez took the helm in the fall of 2012. 

Here are some of the things noted in the report:

- In a staff survey, 74 percent disagreed the school has positive morale.

- A majority of staff members - 71 percent - said staff is not included in decision-making.

- Fewer than a third of respondents said Monroe is a supportive and inviting place to work.

- Teachers and administrators are so consumed with discussing the negative culture, there's little discussion of instruction.

News 8 talked to five Monroe teachers about the report. All said they feared retribution for talking publicly.

"This is the worse it's been in the 26 years I've been at Monroe High School," said Daniel Dunne, a bilingual Social Studies teacher.

"What is happening in the culture of the building, I try not to let through my door," said 7th grade math teacher Gina Porter. "My analogy is, it's like an odor. It's seeps in, no matter how hard you try to keep it out."

The district did not provide anyone to talk on camera about the WestEd report. 

The report described a very contentious relationship between teachers and Ramirez. Teachers complained about the following:

- Some teachers didn't know their room or course assignments until school started, making it difficult to plan.

- A new mission statement wasn't shared or discussed with staff.

- Ramirez took away a teacher bathroom, communal microwave and refrigerator and an end-of-the-month staff breakfast.

- There are few schoolwide professional development opportunities.

"I literally cannot think of one decision that's been made through our shared decision making process," said special education teacher Scott Moore.

"Decisions are made without informing us or even allowing us to participate and offer some expertise," said science teacher Natasha Bell.

The teachers also said Ramirez targeted them during morning announcements.

"One morning he came on and he literally said, 'You know, there's a rumor going around that I'm leaving and for those of you, I've got news for you. I'm not going anywhere,'" Porter said, adding that her students asked her to explain the announcement. 

WestEd also had something to say about the environment for students. About half of staff members thought the school had high academic standards. About half thought the school was unsafe. More than three-quarters of staff said there were racial problems among black and Hispanic students. Almost all - 99 percent - of staff surveyed said student behavior was a moderate or severe problem.

"Our students, we worry about constantly," said Porter. "The hallways are crazy."

"I wouldn't send my child there," said Moore.

Donnell Johnson, a science teacher, said discipline is a huge issue. "Especially when (Ramirez) says to me directly, 'I don't believe what you say. I will take a kid's word over yours any day or any time.'"

Last summer, Monroe was awarded a $4.5 million federal School Improvement Grant. A hallmark of the school's application for the funds was an extended day program. The school calls it the "9th period." 

But the program is voluntary. WestEd noted that it's run by outside agencies, classroom management is poor, there's no data on whether students are benefiting and classes are not graded and they don't bear credits. 

Teachers are not happy they have to give up their rooms at the end of the day to agencies they see as not as qualified to help students. Teachers don't have places to meet with students and each other after school.

"Most of us are like nomads in the building walking around," said Porter.

WestEd said Ramirez would not share the school budget.

The report did note some positives. It said Ramirez is very student-centered. It also noted that teachers like each other and work well together. 

The district gave a statement to News 8. It read in part, "Monroe High is one of 35 city schools with a Priority or Focus designation which requires urgent action to improve. WestEd, a firm recommended by the state to help schools do better, conducted a diagnostic study of the Monroe community to identify problems."

The statement goes on to say, "It's important to note that this report contains perceptions and opinions being gathered in the first step of an improvement process. The District is working with administrators and staff to support this process and Superintendent Vargas is confident that the Monroe High community will collaborate in the interests of students to address problems and improve achievement."

The district said its contracts with providers for the extended day program amount to $200,000. The teachers News 8 interviewed said they were not invited to participate. The school board approved money for a handful of other teachers to take part in extended day, but one said she decided not to take part and was not aware the board approved the extra hours.

"As long as we continue in this vein, I don't think we'll get any better results," said Johnson.

"The staff is great. The kids are good. We work hard. But it's falling apart," said Dunne.

"We love our children very much. We want Monroe to be the best school," said Porter. "Most of us are fighting like crazy to make it happen, but we just can't in the environment that we're in."

Update:

Here is additional information from the district about its extended day program at Monroe High School. The following is from an email from the district spokesperson:

The program at Monroe includes a combination of extra instruction and enrichment activities. 
 
RCSD teachers are the first choice for additional instruction, and they are providing the majority of support for Monroe students—including  Regents exam preparation and credit recovery, Ramp-Up and On-Ramp ELA and Math support for Middle School, English Language support for Newcomer students, and extended Spanish Native Language Arts instruction for bilingual students. If enough RCSD teachers don’t elect to work outside the regular school day, the District employs other providers for instructional support—in this case, Sylvan Learning and Fallsview Academy.
 
Monroe High School’s offerings include:
                    Hillside Work Scholarship Connection advocates that provide life skills development, career exploration, and job training.
                    Dual-Enrollment College Credit bearing courses with Monroe Community College
                    Ibero-American Action League Mentoring Program
                    Center for Youth Services After-School Program
                    Rochester Association of Performing Arts
                    Young Audiences
                    Borinquen Dance Theatre
                    Afro-Caribbean Dance and Drumming
                    Saturday School with SUNY Geneseo support



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