An in-progress documentary film
For many decades there has been discussion about improving public education outcomes in the Rochester City School District. As part of these discussions, the high rate of poverty in this community, economic and racial segregation, inequity in resources, the lack of a diverse teaching population, institutional bias, and the quality of education are frequently discussed.
Against the backdrop of systemic challenges and the contemporary political struggles around improving outcomes, my colleague Josh Meltzer and I have been producing a documentary film that will explore many of these issues and unpack the complicated story of public education in this region. It will demonstrate how a legacy of laws, policies, and prejudices has laid the foundation for structural and systemic racism today. In addition, this film will contain a historical narrative that offers context for the educational experiences playing out today across the region and nationwide.
Our film will be told from the perspectives of those impacted most - the students, their families, and educators. The following are still captures from our film footage, along with descriptions of some of the scenes and the primary people we’ve documented. We intend to complete most filming in 2022.
East High School, one of the most storied in the region, entered receivership in 2014 after the state designated it as a failing school, having sunk to a 39% graduation rate. In 2015, it began an experimental partnership with the University of Rochester under the leadership of its own
superintendent, Dr. Shaun Nelms.
The film follows two East eleventh graders, Elsie Vazquez and Sintral Jones since they were in the seventh grade. Both are leaders within their peer groups and in the classroom and, like 90% of those
enrolled in the RCSD, they are students of color. Each faces challenges typical of their peers and they are on schedule to graduate in 2022.
Elsie and Sintral are enrolled in the long-running Teaching and Learning Institute at East. The program, led by husband and wife teachers, Dan and Laura Delehanty, prepares students to enter the fields of leadership and education.
These storylines play out amidst a complicated mix of circumstances. The school board continues to have many personality conflicts on display publicly and the district has seen a revolving door of five superintendents in as many years, with the last leaving abruptly after just nine months.
In July 2018, New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia appointed Dr. Jaime Aquino as a Distinguished Educator. He outlined 84 recommendations for the Board of Education and district that would help provide equitable access to high-quality education for all students.
Before his departure in June 2019, Dr. Aquino issued a quarterly report detailing concerns, including the board’s performance, citing the “lack of understanding of its role as a governing body, and its subsequent inability to act as a unified body.”
The partnership between East High School and the University of Rochester is leveraging university resources to create more support for students. One example is Step to College, which offers a group of East students an opportunity to experience the expectations and rigor of college.
Students apply to the program in the eighth grade and participate beyond graduation. They attend a two-week academic boot camp each summer, where they sleep in dorms and study college level
classes. They also participate in ongoing meetings throughout the school year to ensure academic success. Many of the students who participate are also part of the Teaching and Learning Institute at East.
In 2019, the district revealed a budget crisis resulting in a massive deficit and over 100 mid-year teacher layoffs. As a result, in 2020 the state appointed an academic and financial monitor to work with the district.
In addition to leveraging university resources to create more support for students, the partnership between East and the University of Rochester is working to increase family and community
engagement. The partnership was formed to reach an 84% graduation rate by 2021. In 2020, it was announced that the rate increased to 77%. Going forward, it is unclear how the COVID pandemic will impact student outcomes.
The Delehantys, along with Dr. Nelms, are actively involved in an effort by teachers and administrators representing all 18 of the school districts in Monroe County to build an anti-racist curriculum. This work, which began in August 2020 as protests in Roch-
ester and around the country were held demanding racial justice and equity, will also focus on professional development for educators.
The COVID pandemic has highlighted inequities nationwide and across Monroe County, including access to technology. The Rochester City School District distributed tens of thousands of Chromebooks and MiFi hotspot devices to families across the city working to make sure that every K – 12 student had reliable access to instruction. While most schools in the region returned to various forms of in-person learning in September 2020, RCSD chose to remain with an entirely remote learning model to start the year.
After more than nine months of learning entirely remotely, Elsie and Sintral learned they could opt to return to in-person learning two days a week starting in February 2021. Initially, both were reluctant, but decided to return citing mental health and remote learning challenges.
RCSD returned to full-time in-person learning in September 2021. Both Elsie and Sintral are expected to graduate in June 2022. We plan to continue filming through summer 2022 when their
next steps will be clearer.
In 2021, we were awarded a residency at Visual Studies Workshop, which we completed in spring 2022. Josh and I used our time at VSW to research historical aspects of the story and storyboard ways in which we could integrate historical context into this contemporary storytelling.
Cinematography - Josh Meltzer
East High School Superintendant Dr. Shaun Nelms, left, and Upper School Principal Marlene Blocker greet a student on stage
during the 2019 graduation ceremony.
1) Elsie works with teacher FrankyGutierrez during a bilingual algebra classApril 23, 2019.Above, teacher Laura Delahanty works
with Sintral on a curriculum development assignment during Teaching and Learning Institute class June 4, 2019. 2) Elsie works with teacher Franky Gutierrez during a bilingual algebra class
April 23, 2019. 3) Sintral and Elsie work on a redlining project they will present to parents and program donors July 19, 2019. 4) Elsie, left, and other Step to College participants react to a spoken word
presentation during the closing ceremonies of the two-week program July 19, 2019.
1) Students from several schools joined forces to march from their buildings to the Rochester City School District’s central offices to protest proposed teacher layoffs December 16, 2019. 2) Seventh grader Sarah Adams speaks during the protest. 3) Police cars block Broad Street to traffic where hundreds of people gathered
to protest proposed teacher cuts ahead of a school board meeting on December 19, 2019. 4) A number of people spoke during the
rally, including the Secretary Treasurer of the New York State AFL-CIO Terrence Melvin.
Above, pictured from left, Webster School District social studies teacher Greg Ahlquist, Dr. Shaun Nelms and Laura Delahanty
work on a shared document outlining the proposed curriculum for 11th graders August 13, 2020. Below, Sintral fact checks a point while watching the final Presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden October 22, 2020.
1) Sintral looks at his phone duringLaura Delahanty’s class, which he attendsremotely from his bedroom, November 6,2020. 2) Laura Delahanty teaches remotely from her living room October 30, 2020.
3) Elsie attends class remoteley from her bedroom while her infant niece sleeps nearby November 13, 2020. 4) Sintral attends class from his livingroom while his great aunt folds laundry April 21, 2021.
1) A graduating East High School senior exits the stage with his diploma June 26,2020. East rescheduled their graduation to allow for an in-person ceremony after NewYork State adjusted their COVID guidelines.The school held two outdoor ceremonies, dividing the class alphabetically, so it could accomodate two guests per student. 2) East Upper School Principal Marlene Blocker hugs a senior as his family cheers during a graduation lawn sign dropoff in Rochester May 26, 2020. Dozens of administrators, staff and teachers formed car parades, driving
to each senior’s home delivering signs and goody bags.
1) Sintral crosses the parking lot of EastHigh School before the start of school on hiseighteenth birthday March 26, 2021. 2) Elsie waves to a friend as she gets a ride to school May 13, 2021.
3) Sintral returns to East High School for his first day of in-person learning since the start of the COVID pandemic February, 25, 2021. A problem with paperwork prevented him from attending class in the building for approximately two more weeks.
Above, Elsie applies makeup as she getsready to accompany her friend, a fellow Eaststudent, to the senior prom June 5, 2021. Below, Sintral and some of his teammates gather on the sideline before the start of a football game April 13, 2021. The Section V
football season was delayed until the spring due to COVID.