When it comes to addressing child poverty, schools are almost always on the front lines. It’s why the story of East High in Rochester is so fascinating.

East was supposed to shut down in 2015 after struggling to meet state standards. Instead, the University of Rochester created a three-way partnership with both the Rochester City School District and state Education Department. Ultimately, East became part of an “Educational Partnership Organization” (EPO) school reform model.

Since 2015, under the leadership of Superintendent Dr. Shaun Nelms, East’s graduation rate has increased by 33%; its dropout rate has fallen by 90%.

Dr. Nelms, who is also the William & Sheila Konar director of the Center for Urban Education Success at the Warner School of Education at the University of Rochester, spoke with Capital Tonight about what it takes to make this kind of educational transformation.

“What we see is a culture that has little to no faith in systems that were designed to support them,” Dr. Nelms said. “You can imagine the experiences that kids felt when the graduation rate was less than 30% — when they had little to no hope about what they were going to do once they exited high school.”

East now has six career tracks for its 1,100 students including medical, culinary, vision care and information technology.

“Students can see themselves taking a trade experience in high school, and have a job at the other end,” Nelms explained. “While other students may say ‘I want to be a teacher,' so they enter into our Teaching and Learning Institute and develop skills to be teachers, while others push themselves in advanced placement courses and regents level courses.”

In order to make these jobs real for students, East has brought into the school physicians and welders of color in order for students to see themselves being successful on a variety of career paths.

The program has had an impact. Four students from East earned full scholarships to the University of Rochester last year.

“As we saw students being able to progress throughout this system, the doors on the other side opened up, and the community poured in in ways and invested in ways that allowed them to reach their full potential,” Dr. Nelms said.

One of the keys to East’s success is ensuring industries and universities and other key members of the community take time to invest in the students. 

“What that tells me is the ability to address poverty in our community is possible if you create school systems that are successful and coordinate that success with local industries, colleges and the military in ways that our students are seen and recruited and valued,” Nelms continued.