November 2022 Letter from Superintendent Pekel
Mamisoa Knutson

Dear RPS Staff, Parents and Caregivers, and Community Partners, 

Big changes are taking place in Rochester Public Schools (RPS), and I am writing to update you on the many exciting initiatives we have underway in our school district. 

While the strategic plan that the Rochester School Board unanimously approved in June of 2022 identifies the broad shifts we will be making in our district’s processes and organizational structures over the next three years, the strategic plan does not include detailed roadmaps for how we are going to reach those destinations. We are now creating those roadmaps through working groups that are setting measurable goals, recommending new initiatives and changes in current practices, identifying needed resources, and developing timelines for implementation. 

Here are twenty tasks that our teams are undertaking: 

  1. Developing a framework for deeper learning that will shape our academic agenda in the years ahead. We are studying and adapting the work of Dr. Jal Mehta and his colleagues at Harvard to define the kind of deeper learning we want all RPS students to experience. In our emerging thinking, the RPS approach to deeper learning will have three components:  

  • Mastery: Students master important knowledge and skills 

  • Identity: Students form a personal connection to the material they are studying 

  • Creativity: Students create or do something that is meaningful to them. 

  1. We are working with the University of Minnesota to evaluate the status of the following three tiers of educational support for students in Rochester Public Schools: 

  • Tier One: A significant majority (i.e. 85%) of students are provided with a high-quality foundational educational program that meets their learning needs 

  • Tier Two: A subset of students is provided with targeted interventions that help them succeed in the foundational Tier One educational program 

  • Tier Three: A small group of students receive intensive supports that enable them to succeed in largely – though not necessarily entirely – separate educational settings. 

  1. We have launched a new school-wide continuous improvement plan (SCIP) process that helps schools focus on and implement best practices in the following four areas: 

  • Student academic knowledge and skills

  • Student social and emotional skills 

  • High-quality learning environment for all students 

  • High-quality work environment for all staff 

  1. Staff in our new Office of Academics are conducting a comprehensive review of the strengths and weaknesses of district curricula in English/language arts (including reading at the elementary level) and science from early childhood through 12th grade and will recommend changes by July 1, 2023.

  2. Teams of teachers and other staff are reviewing the Grading for Learning initiative in RPS and will make recommendations before the end of the calendar year.  

  3. We are implementing the FastBridge frequent assessments in reading and math from kindergarten through 12th grade in most schools and the PreACT exam at Century High School to provide teachers, administrators, and other staff with accurate and actionable information on students’ levels of knowledge and skills in those subjects following the disruptions of the COVID pandemic. 

  4. We are implementing the EduCLIMBER technology platform to enable teachers and school teams to aggregate and disaggregate data to improve instruction and design interventions. 

  5. We have brought a group of RPS staff and students together to co-design processes, practices, and structures that help all students and staff think and feel that they belong in RPS schools. This initiative is being facilitated by Jess Roberts of the University of Minnesota using a process that has successfully brought diverse perspectives together to create new ways of thinking and being.

  6. We are working with a national technical assistance organization to identify school bus transportation route structures that could realistically be implemented in Rochester to enable elementary schools to start at times that optimize learning for younger students while preserving the benefits of later start times for secondary students. 

  7. We are developing a new framework for community engagement that RPS schools and the district as a whole can use to build authentic partnerships with a range of community organizations. One of the first applications of that new model will be an effort to increase extracurricular offerings at the middle school level through community education and community partnerships.

  8. We are reviewing research on educational leadership to identify a set of competencies, attitudes, and behaviors that RPS will seek to continuously develop in current and future leaders.

  9. We are defining the knowledge, skills, habits, attitudes, and other characteristics that RPS seeks to help all students develop by the time they graduate from high school and are developing a set of steps that students should take in elementary, middle, and high school to be ready for success in postsecondary education and a career.

  10. We are conducting a needs assessment to review the programs and services that RPS currently provides to support student and staff mental health and researching ways to identify struggling students and to expand treatment options for both students and staff. 

  11. We are working to select and, as necessary, adapt a research-based framework for authentic and effective family engagement that will help RPS schools and staff members build productive partnerships with parents and other caregivers to meet student needs.

  12. We are developing strategies to further improve the availability of substitute teachers.

  13. We are designing a proposal for the 2023-2024 budget that further reduces the district’s structural budget deficit while also investing in the priorities of our strategic plan. 

  14.  We are studying options for an operating referendum that the RPS School Board may decide to put before the voters in the fall of 2023 and/or 2024. 

  15. We are making plans to redesign the RPS website to better meet the needs of our families, schools, and community. 

  16. We are planning professional development initiatives that will help all staff understand and avoid language, actions, and attitudes that convey racial or ethnic bias and microaggression. 

  17. We are identifying additional investments in the physical infrastructure of our school buildings that would further enhance the safety of our students and our staff.

The initiatives listed above are all being planned (and, in some cases, implemented) during the 2022-2023 school year. During the following school year (2023-2024), a second wave of changes called for in our strategic plan will be put in motion. Those initiatives include changing the way we fund and staff our schools, enhancing recruitment and induction of new staff, reviewing and, as needed, revising our school district policies to advance equity, increasing grant funding, developing a parent empowerment program, uplifting youth voice and leadership, and expanding transportation service to early childhood programs. 

Each of the changes outlined in this letter would be difficult to implement even if it was the only change occurring in the school district at the time. The changes will be even more challenging to implement given that other major changes in our school district will be taking place at the same moment. That said, I am optimistic about the success of our strategic plan precisely because it is so multi-faceted and ambitious. If implemented effectively, the changes outlined in the plan will complement and reinforce each other. For example, emphasizing deeper learning will highlight the importance of providing students with multi-tiered systems of support, which will, in turn, increase the importance of helping all students chart their own course toward postsecondary education and a career. 

In other words, each initiative in our strategic plan is a building block that RPS must put in place to construct a true learning system that enables all of our students to thrive. Thank you in advance for your engagement and support in the months ahead as we put those building blocks in place. 

Sincerely,

Kent Pekel, Ed.D. 
Superintendent of Schools