Willa Powell

Question 1.

Across New York, White students were given nearly twice as much access as their Latino and Black peers to a range of key courses in middle and high school in the 2016-17 school year. They were nearly three times as likely to be enrolled in advanced courses like Advanced Placement Math and Science. In Rochester in 2016-17, for example, White students were nearly 5 times more likely to be enrolled in AP or IB courses than Black students and more than 6 times more likely to be enrolled in AP or IB courses than Latino students. How should the Rochester school board address the issue of equitable access to advanced courses?

Answer 1.

“Student enrollment in Advanced Placement and International Bachelorette courses is predicated on that student’s success leading up to high school. Therefore the remedy must be to  provide timely intervention early in a child’s academic career. The sad reality is that the opposite has been true; black and Latino students have been allowed to fall behind and once the gap has grown large enough, they have been identified and labeled disproportionately as learning disabled placed in Special Education classrooms that set them up for even greater failure.

Addressing our Special Education delivery in accordance with the Empire Justice consent decree will go a long way toward helping those who have already been swept into this broken system by providing a path to ‘declassification’ and genuine intervention. Greater focus on early intervention can break the pipeline into Special Ed classification in the first place.

What is needed most of all however, is greater sensitivity among out teaching and guidance staff around implicit bias. Failure to provide early intervention comes from several possible sources, but I am concerned that the root cause of the low performance of our minority students stems from the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations.’

Finally, implicit bias norms only exist because they have been allowed to exist. School Principals must also undergo implicit bias training, with the goal of setting a leadership tone in every building that leaves no room for bigotry. Treat students like they can achieve and remove barriers to success and they will achieve.” 

Question 2.

New York has expanded the ways students can earn a high school diploma. These new rules can provide multiple pathways for students to demonstrate college and career readiness. But they can also be used to “track” students of color, English Language Learners, and students with disabilities into less rigorous coursework and lower graduation standards. How should the Rochester school board address the issue of making sure the high school diploma has real value for all students?

Answer 2.

“I am aware of only two exceptions to the New York State requirement to pass five (5) Regents exams in order to graduate.

The first exception waives one (1) Regents exam, replacing either US History or Global History with an approved Career and Technical Education (CTE) exam. The CTE path requires many more specialty courses leading up to this exam, therefore does not represent either a lack of rigor or a watering down of graduation standards. In most cases, the extra workload comes at the cost of electives such as music and art, and in many cases, CTE students still challenge both history courses and graduate with 5 Regents exam requirements met.

I reject any argument that these offerings diminish the value of a CTE track and the notion these program are less rigorous. While students that choose CTE tracks do so as an alternative of an AP track, it is important to note that both go beyond Regents minimum standards.

The second exception allows a students to graduate with a 60% on one Regents exam under certain circumstances. This exception does not involve ‘tracking’ students in any way. Furthermore, it requires State Department of Education (SED) approval and is quite labor intensive. This exception, along with the CTE exception were carefully crafted by SED to avoid devaluation of the Regents diploma.

The real issue is not whether students are potentially ‘tracked’ toward a less valid/valuable high school diploma, but rather, the well publicized low rate of graduation – period.” 

Question 3.

New York’s school districts are frequently failing to provide their highest-need schools with significantly greater levels of resources so that all students receive the support they need to succeed. For the 2018-19 school year, most school districts planned relatively little difference in budgeted per-pupil funding levels between their schools that serve the smallest share of low-income students compared to their schools serving the highest share of low-income students. How should the Rochester school board allocate the resources that it controls?

Answer 3.

“In 2018, the Governor imbedded a requirement into the education budget (known as Article 7 legislation) that each district report expenditures by school. The results are publicly available. 


The difficulty in Rochester is that the difference between our highest-need and lowest-need schools, as defined by household income is not really relevant. All of our schools have more than fifty percent (50%) free and reduced lunch eligible students. Most studies indicate that such concentrations of poverty at even our most affluent schools is problematic.


Because so many of our schools have been identified along the continuum from ‘Schools In Need of Improvement’ through to ‘Receivership,’ much of the resourcing decisions are dictated by NY State. (For example, schools in receivership must move toward a community schools model, which includes additional budget implications.)


One final consideration: Rochester City School District budget is heavily dependent on grants. More of our funding comes from federal, state and local grant sources than from our local tax levy (17% verses 13% respectively). As a result, our schools are too often funded in accordance with the grant requirements. 


While the School Board strives to provide every school with what it needs, we must put more energy into ‘growing the pie.’ We need the NY State legislature to fully implement the Contract for Excellence (C4E) funding formula of 2008, which would provide more resources to all our schools and make us less dependent on grants which dictate uneven/unfair funding allocations.”

Question 4.

One-third of all New York schools had no Latino or Black teachers in the 2015-16 school year. As a result, more than 115,000 Latino and Black students were enrolled in schools without a single full-time same-race/ethnicity teacher, and nearly half of the state’s White students attended schools without a single full-time Latino or Black teacher. In Rochester, 86% of students were Latino or Black in 2015-16, compared to 18% of teachers. In addition, the least experienced teachers are disproportionately assigned to Rochester’s highest-need high schools. How should the Rochester school board address the issue of improving access to strong, well-supported, and diverse educators?

Answer 4.

“The Rochester City School Board has demanded a workforce that more closely resembles the student population for many years. Rochester’s minority hiring program has resulted in a higher percentage of teachers of color than both the state and national average.

But every year our gains are threatened by budget driven layoffs. This year, in order to protect our new minority hires, the Board authorized an early retirement incentive. We anticipate reducing our workforce by roughly 200 teachers because of enrollment declines, but hope to attrite them through retirement so we can retain our newest hires.

This plays into the second half of the question: the least experienced teachers assigned to our highest-needs schools. Our union contracts dictate a seniority-based teacher assignment process, so our options are limited. We are further constrained whenever a school falls into receivership, because the state ‘turn-around’ option requires that at least fifty percent (50%) of the teaching staff be replaced.

The answer is to have a robust professional development system and a network of resource specialists that can provide support to teachers who need mentoring wherever they are assigned. The tendency during lean budget years is to treat Professional Development like a luxury instead of like the necessity that it is.

The answer to this second dilemma is the same as in Question 3 above. We must ‘grow the pie’ to ensure that we have the requisite money to provide ongoing training to our teachers, whether they are newly-certified or veterans.” 

Question 5.

New York schools suspended a student at least once every minute during the 2016-17 school year. During that period, Rochester schools suspended Black students at more than twice the rate of White students. How should the Rochester school board address school discipline?

Answer 5.

“For several years now, the School Board has been committed to a new Code of Conduct that focuses on reducing suspension for non-violent incidents. We have also supported an incremental rollout of Restorative Practices, providing training and support to ten schools at a time. These practices include processes that address the root causes of suspensions.

I support Restorative Practices as a foundational concept.  Once implemented in every school in our district, we will have the capacity to reduce the violence that produces suspensions in the first place. We can influence whole generations into being more mindful of others and creating a more civil city! In the short term, our students will spend more time in school learning and our performance will improve on every other indicator as well: attendance, ELA and math assessments, Regents pass rates, and graduation rates.

But the racial disparities in our suspension rates will continue until and unless we can undo racial bias. For a more complete answer, please see my answer to Question 1 above. Our teaching and administrative staff must have a better understanding and awareness of their own implicit bias. They must also be more sensitive to whatever cultural biases they bring into their response to student behavior.

Changing time-honored responses to students from different cultural backgrounds does not happen overnight, and it does not happen without professional development time and money. (See my answer to Question 4.)”

Question 6.

School boards are expected to hold the superintendent accountable for results and rely on the district leadership for day-to-day management of the school system. That requires a clear vision, transparent use of data, and an equity-driven strategic plan for the district’s operations. How should the Rochester school board think about its governance role?

Answer 6.

“Every School Board candidate runs on a reform agenda, but often the Board member who acknowledges the boundary between governance and day-to-day operations is accused of ‘selling out,’ especially on constituent issues.

While Board members can and will disagree and vote against individual resolutions, the one thing we need to do together and unanimously is to agree on our vision.

How do we get there? Often, it is one issue at a time. As we debate the merits of our choices, we develop the trust and unity of purpose that is lacking in the political back-and-forth. For example, the Board agreed to establish a community task force on School Climate. Revisions to our Code of Conduct came out of this work, as did a growing consensus on the value of equity and Restorative Practices.

By focusing the Board’s attention on the most pressing issues in the District, the Distinguished Educator’s report can move both Board and District forward while clearly articulating our proper roles.

There will be change. That is a certainty because one incumbent chose not to seek re-election. The remaining Board members must welcome the new, however many there may be, and new ideas to the table.

I have been adaptable to change yet steadfast in my core belief in equity for our students throughout my entire twenty years on the Board. This is fundamentally my case to the voters that I should be returned for another term on the Rochester City School Board.”