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Looking inward: Rochester Public Schools reviews survey data to see what areas need improvement

"These results weigh heavily on me, but I am somewhat heartened that our next conversation that we have is going to be about our plan going forward," said School Board member Cathy Nathan.

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The Rochester School Board meets Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021, in the school district's Edison Administrative Building in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — Rochester Public Schools has been gathering some hard data in order to figure out what areas it needs to work on.

Last week, the Rochester School Board reviewed the results of several surveys and focus groups, with the goal of refining what tasks it needs to incorporate into its strategic plan.

"In conducting this analysis, we chose to lean into the areas for improvement," Superintendent Kent Pekel said. "We did not spend a lot of time digging into our areas of strength ... there are many incredible strengths in this district, but we're trying right now to really focus on the areas for growth and improvement."

The presentation included information from both Wilder Research, a firm the school district contracted with, and internal research from the district itself.

According to representatives from Wilder, there were 3,557 parents, 1,654 staff members, and 285 community members who took the survey.

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One of the findings they discussed the most is that more than a quarter (26%) of families who responded to the survey are considering leaving their child's school before December 2022.

Within that answer, however, was a variety of certainty. Among that larger subset, 4% said they were "likely" to leave their school, 7% said they were "very likely" to leave their school, but 15% said they were "unsure."

Pekel said that's potentially attributable to the large number of changes happening in the system.

"In a school district where all of the boundaries are changing next year, and four new schools are opening and one school is closing, to have some folks say 'unsure' could be reflective of that changing system," Pekel said.

From the various survey responses and focus groups, Wilder Research elicited six key themes:

  • Students' academic performance is below expectations, academic disparities
  • Staff and students need to feel belonging, connection
  • Staff and students' mental wellbeing
  • Concerns about safety, discipline, and overall school climate
  • Need for better communication, more information for families, responsiveness
  • Desire for more accountability and transparency

Anna Granias with Wilder Research said the themes are interrelated and can't necessarily be handled individually.

However, she did emphasize the fourth theme, which is about school safety, discipline and overall school climate.

"It's the fourth one we're talking about tonight, but it might just be the number one priority in terms of issues that RPS needs to address with your plan because it came up in so many different ways," Granias said. "It appears that school climate and these related issues are important factors that contribute to enrollment decisions among families. These are really critical things that families are paying attention to and looking at."

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Other themes Wilder Research touched on included how fairly parents think schools treat their children, how much staff feel supported, and how welcome students and staff feel in their buildings.

For example, 90% of white parents and guardians said their children's schools are a welcoming place for them. By comparison, that question was answered positively by 90% of Latinos, 94% of Asians, and 85% of Blacks.

Peter Wruck, RPS director of research, assessment and evaluation, also presented findings. He provided data on survey questions such as whether students had reported being treated differently because of their race and the degree to which they feel safe in their schools.

The board did not talk about any potential solutions to the issues that were raised. Rather, the district is working on solutions that it can implement into its strategic plan.

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Board member Cathy Nathan described the survey results as "sobering."

"I think we've all known a lot of these factors before. It is very helpful to have it in such a data-rich way to look at it," she said. "These results weigh heavily on me, but I am somewhat heartened that our next conversation that we have is going to be about our plan going forward."

Jordan Shearer covers K-12 education for the Post Bulletin. A Rochester native, he graduated from Bemidji State University in 2013 before heading out to write for a small newsroom in the boonies of western Nebraska. Bringing things full circle, he returned to Rochester in 2020 just shy of a decade after leaving. Readers can reach Jordan at 507-285-7710 or jshearer@postbulletin.com.
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