Public Papers

Discussion With Teachers at the Wilson Magnet High School in Rochester, New York


Ms. Johnston. You've already been somewhat introduced. I'm especially pleased that you asked for an opportunity to meet with the teachers of Wilson, really for a couple of reasons. Primary in the whole development of Wilson is very much akin to your message of accountability. It was a real driving force in our development. And the other reason is that, really, from my perspective, in terms of school reform, in school improvement, the real critical key role is the teacher role. It's creative and loving talent of teachers that really make a difference between a school that is just adequate and a school that really stretches for excellence for all kids.

This is a wonderful group of people, and I think that you're going to be able to have an opportunity to hear a lot of different perspective. I'd like to start with Mr. Hathaway, who's on your left. Eddie's with us since about 1980.

Teacher. Right, 10 years. [Laughter]

Ms. Johnston. Ten of your best, right, Eddie? Mr. Hathaway, I think, can give you a little overview of the building.

The President. Yeah. I'd love to know about the change and all that, too.

Teacher. Well, Mr. President, Wilson is one building that's made up of three houses, three programs, if you will, but with one common goal. You know the building, of course, is Wilson Magnet, but the three houses that we have in here -- the Academy of Excellence, which meets the needs of the humanities and languages -- is our draw. We have a house known as Transition Tech, which meets the special needs of students in special need, and we also have the School of Science and Technology. I'm a part of that program. And in that program, we teach and emphasize computers and science. Our goal though, of course, is total commitment to the students. We've been fortunate here in the Rochester community because we have a total commitment from everybody. And we're trying to meet the needs of society by using the whole community as a team: industry, the outside forces right here in the community, higher education, and of course, the hard-working staff here at Wilson. That's Wilson in a nutshell.

The President. Well, it's important, and it's impressive.

Teacher. We've been successful for many reasons. Gary, do you want to mention -- --

Teacher. Well, we're a small school and -- --

The President. Like numbers?

Teacher. Well, under a thousand. That makes a successful school. Teachers care, and that's what kids like. I've read papers by kids -- I teach English -- and some of the papers that the seniors are writing this year -- they're talking about -- the Wilson teachers care about kids. And kids like to know that there's somebody there that cares about them.

Teacher. Another part of Wilson that really helps make it such a success is our home aids guidance program. We take on a group of youngsters, about 20, from the time they enter the building until the time they graduate; and we become almost parents, surrogate parents. You could talk to anyone on this staff, and they would have stories for you, a lot of the different, wonderful things that are done for our kids, with our kids.

The President. Do you ever run into any parental resentment? You get 20 kids, and you find somebody that maybe needs some love and attention and caring, as Gary said. But do you ever run into some parent that doesn't want that kind of involvement?

Teacher. I never have. As a matter of fact, a particular situation that I'm involved in right now -- I have nothing but parents who are very supportive of everything that we're doing.

The President. I think they all would be. I just wondered if some felt that intrusion -- don't worry, we'll take care of our kids at home; you look after them at school -- because the program goes into the homes, too, or not?

Teacher. Yes, definitely. Mr. Geraci will tell you, we've worked a number of times with students that we've had difficulties with at home. And one of the emphases here at Wilson is the team approach, again. If I have a difficult student -- well, go ahead, Bill.

Teacher. Back to your point on the parents, do they resent teachers getting involved? I think parents for so long have been divorced, so to speak, from the process that their kids go through during the day. And finally, somebody is coming to them and asking for their input. And it is a refreshing thing for them to finally have the teachers want their involvement. And that's a big reason why this school has been successful. The community around the school has put a commitment in. The teachers have put a commitment in. The school district has put the commitment in. And really, what we've done here is we've put together commitments from seven or eight different areas -- business, college, parents, teachers, kids -- put them all together. And over the course of the last 8 or 9 years, during the transition of this building, we've seen quite a bit of success here.

Teacher. We've been lucky, Mr. President, in that the staff works very hard here; just about everybody is willing to go out to the homes and meet with the families, regardless of what the family situation can be. And it can be difficult at times.

The President. A kid doesn't show or is a dropout factor and all that?

Teacher. Every day we can run into that, but we're always there to help the kids.

Teacher. I think part of the commitment idea is being helped with this school-based plan that's been instituted by the school district. This involves a team of people -- parents, students, administrators, and teachers together -- working for what's best for the school. And we have an outstanding team of 21 individuals, which myself and Eddie are a member of.

The President. Wait a minute! That's a faculty committee?

Teacher. It's a combination committee of parents, students -- there are two student members, three parent members, some administrative members, and teaching members. And we are a team that has this commitment, and we realize that for a school to be successful you need all three groups working together -- the parents and community, the students, and the faculty and staff. And that is something we've instituted this year through the auspices of the school district. But it's something that I think is going to fit our school very well. And we've had some successes now, and we're starting to move forward with our team.

Teacher. To get back to your original question about parents: Every day we have to make some parental contacts, but most of the time, just about every time, it's been with success. They say thanks for calling, thanks for calling, which could have been rare in other instances, until we instituted some of these programs out here.

Teacher. As a writing assignment, I asked the seniors to write their parents a letter and tell them how much they appreciated things that they've done for them over the years. And I've gotten calls, a couple of calls already. And one father said, ``I'm not an emotional man, but this really touched me.'' He said that it really did.

Teacher. Similar to that, I'm a senior class adviser this year, and in the last will and testament, which usually ends up being kind of a real funny kind of thing, most of the kids are leaving love and thank you to teachers -- --

The President. That helped them and stuff?

Teacher. -- -- throughout the building.

The President. That's fantastic.

Teacher. It's been mentioned, I think a couple of times, about industry getting involved. And we have a program called PRISM, Program for Rochester Students in Science and Math. And we take students who are not motivated in those areas, and even though I don't have a home base, I work with the parents through that particular program. And that's been very helpful in getting some of the students to raise their levels of self-esteem. Some of them come in with low self-esteem or low self-expectations for themselves. So, we bring in role models. And they go to industry, and they can see certain areas that they could get into. And it's been a real help as far as trying to motivate some of the students to raise their levels of expectations and working with the parents to give them that idea that, yes, they can achieve this particular goal.

The President. Has this obvious commitment -- you can't sit here, but feel that from the beginning -- but has this resulted in lower incidence of vandalism or drugs and this kind of thing in the school than in some other schools, would you say? I know everywhere there are problems, everywhere, in all levels of society. But I just can't help but feel that with what you're describing -- --

Teacher. Mr. President, undoubtedly, it does in the sense that when you lay the districtwide demographics of suspensions or attendance or any of the incidences that is implied in the question against this school, the culture of caring here works against that kind of behavior, and it shows up in the districtwide statistics.

Your first question about the history -- 10 years ago this was a school where to show up here was to fail. The politics of the community were so negative about coming here that if you were a child whose parents had any power, they had you somewhere else. I mean before. And the 10 years involvement, including tremendous Federal magnet support, gave authority and cooperation opportunities under strong leadership, massive community participation, outstanding involvement by staff people. And they have grown a culture here where there are now waiting lists, and to come here is to assume I will succeed. And then you are picked up and literally carried -- pushed -- through the system.

The President. How wide is your first strike-zone orbit to come here? What is it, Monroe County that -- --

Teacher. It's a city magnet school.

The President. So, it's citywide then?

Teacher. Yes.

The President. A magnet attracts people from -- --

Teacher. Well, we've gone to schools of choice since systemwide -- the whole 912 programs -- there are no neighborhood schools. But this is one of the models of why to do that. I mean one of the questions I constantly run into with the staff is that the greatest strength of being here is that the students have chosen, the parents have chosen, to come here. That's a piece of the relationship that's very powerful as you start a relationship.

Teacher. Mr. President, we don't skim; we don't take the top 10 percent. We don't get the cream of the crop all the time. We want to pull in different -- an A person, not always an A student, somebody who says, I'm interested in this program; I want to go to this magnet, even though -- --

The President. Who decides that? Who decides who gets in? If you have more applications than you have spaces, is there a board that decides that, or is there -- --

Teacher. In the early days of recruitment, we really had to go recruit -- an application got you here. Since then, as the applications have come up, there's been a constant revision in terms of what role the school plays in the acceptance and what role the central system plays. What we end up doing now is monitoring the distribution of race and sex and previous achievement. And you're absolutely right: This school takes pretty much a cross-section and yet has been able to maintain both the support and the excellence.

The President. A cross section of the economic base.

Teacher. Because the teachers take on the ownership -- [inaudible].

Teacher. I teach special education. I meet the needs of learning-disabled and disturbed students. And what that means to me is that I can offer them the least restrictive environment. And because of the teachers here -- the staff has been so supportive in meeting my needs and my students' needs, in terms of physics or biology, something I couldn't offer to them in the classroom. So, the teachers here offer a cognitive as well as affective education for the students. It's just not academics, and that's where you really get the support of also Wilson Magnet High School.

Teacher. Mr. President, the commitment you're seeing in this community is that the community is trying to make the commitment to raise the level of all students. Wilson Magnet is a leadership school in that process, but it's one school among many where we're trying to raise the level for every kid, including the special-ed kids, the kids in this school, and the kids in the rest of the system. And that's one of the things that makes Rochester unique, because it's such a broad-based effort to do it -- total, systemwide -- that's got the support of the business community, the social agencies, working with a very responsive school system.

The President. I got a touching letter when I was in New Jersey, to a school of excellence, a really good-achieving high school. I got a letter from this girl who had been standing out on the -- she said: ``Well, don't forget those of us that'' -- I forget how she phrased it -- ``aren't bright, but try harder.'' And we were saluting, in this instance, excellence, and listening carefully and hoping to use what we learned there to make a national example, as we'd like to do, from this experience. But it was a very moving and touching letter because, you know, what she was saying is, well, we're not the brightest, but we try harder, and we're going to work hard. This was one who was not a high achiever, but was disadvantaged.

Teacher. The skimming concept was a discussion we had before you came in saying -- [laughter] -- saying we as a community are not interested, I don't believe, in a skimming system, but in a system that raises everybody.

The President. Yes, well, that's what I thought of what Ed said.

Teacher. I've just been given a signal that indicates that there are I think about 350 wonderful Wilson students that are most anxious to meet you, Mr. President, so I have to -- --

The President. Well, let's do it. I'm sure glad our Congressmen -- both Congressman LaFalce and Congressman Horton came up with us on Air Force One. And I don't dare speak for Congressmen, but in this instance we were talking about how much we were looking forward to it, and they telling me how much I would enjoy it. And they're right. So, I'm glad they're with us here today.

Teacher. And we're glad, too. Thank you.

Teacher. Thank you, Mr. President.

The President. Thank you all very much. Well, I'm just sorry Barbara's not here because she loves -- and she really is trying hard to help on this whole volunteer sector thing. Her main focus has been literacy, but she's -- you know, everything ties into literacy. So, she's really working hard at it. But today, I was telling Sue, we're having the President of the French Republic come to our house. So, first she bawled me out about that. And secondly, because the house has been closed all winter -- it's up on the seashore -- so she's up trying to get everything ready.

Teacher. You just brought up a good point: literacy. We've got to be working as a team always, always.

The President. Yes. It gets through everything -- work force and to our competitiveness and being able to compete abroad and to retraining when industries -- you know, one's a loser and another's a winner -- the whole retraining. It's almost -- and you know far better than I -- some of the examples are so tragic: people that fight it and hide it and because of pride and not wanting their kids to know. It's just -- but anyway, I'll fill my wife in on all of this.

Teacher. And please bring her.

The President. She'd love to. I know she'd love to come sometime.

Teacher. We'd love it.

The President. We'll try, we'll try. I've often thought what it would be like to live in times where you didn't have any budget problems in the Federal Government because there are so many worthwhile things. Thank you all very much -- nice to see you.

Note: The President spoke at 10:48 a.m. in the school library. Suzanne Johnston was the principal of the school, and William Geraci, Joseph Baldino, Darlene Sauerhafer, Edward Hathaway, Reggie Simmons, and Barbara Drmacichi were teachers who participated in the discussion. Gary Simon was a school administrator.