09/11/2013 06:44 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2013

The Uncommon Schools/RIT Charter High School Project

Rochester, N.Y., like so many urban centers, suffers from a declining tax base due to affluent residents moving to the suburbs, and is increasingly populated by low-income families the majority of which are African American or Hispanic. The Rochester public school system, once a point of pride for the city, has been challenged to deal with these changing demographics and high school graduation rates have been steadily declining. In addition, many of the city high school students who do graduate do not fair well on tests designed to measure college readiness.

So much of the focus in urban education has been, understandably, on raising high school graduation rates, a necessary but not sufficient achievement if we are to meet our needs in a knowledge economy. And while some progress has been made in this area, ensuring that these high school graduates can successfully complete bachelor degree programs at good colleges and universities has proven to be a more difficult challenge. It has therefore become increasingly evident that universities can't afford to be uninvolved in the preparation of K-12 students for college. Universities must be willing to step up with resources and support to bridge this gap, ensuring that students not only graduate from high school, not only go on to college, but graduate with a college degree and the tools for a successful career.

For these reasons, on September 11, Uncommon Schools, and Rochester Institute of Technology, where I serve as President, announced a partnership to create an innovative charter high school in Rochester, N.Y. with the goal of increasing the number of Rochester students who successfully complete bachelor's degrees after graduation from high school.

The new charter high school will serve a growing number of students who have completed publicly funded Uncommon K-8 charter schools operating in Rochester, all of which have demonstrated student learning outcomes significantly better than those achieved in the city schools.

The high school will be the fifth Rochester school operated by Uncommon Schools, one of the two highest rated charter school management organizations in the U.S. It will open in Fall 2014 with a 60-student ninth-grade class, ultimately growing by 2018 to about 500 students in grades 9 through 12. The high school will serve students already enrolled in Uncommon's four Rochester Prep schools, which currently have approximately 1,000 students in grades kindergarten through 8. Almost all of these students are African American or Hispanic, and the great majority come from low-income families.

The partnership brings together a recognized leader in charter school management with the resources of one of nation's largest private universities, and while many charter schools have some level of relationship with near-by colleges, a partnership of this depth and extent is unusual.

The partnership will allow the university -- its faculty, students, staff, and facilities, to serve as a kind of extension in support of the new charter high school and its students. These students will have access to the universities classrooms, laboratories and facilities. RIT students will serve as tutors and mentors, and RIT faculty will provide special summer course opportunities and help keep charter school staff abreast of the latest developments in their fields. While the high school curriculum will focus on the fundamentals for college success, the partnership will also provide students additional exposure to courses and careers in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields with a goal of increasing the number of low income, minority, and female students prepared for STEM careers.

The partnership was made possible by a generous donation from longtime RIT Trustee Ronald L. Zarrella, who is contributing the funding necessary to support the development and delivery of RIT's contributions to the partnership. Zarrella, former chairman of Bausch and Lomb, has been a strong supporter of educational initiatives, particularly those, such as FIRST Robotics, that promote STEM education.

This ambitious project will be seen as a success only if a large fraction of the graduates of the new charter high school go on to receive bachelor's degrees. As a result, it will be years before we know if such a partnership can effectively address our national urban education problems. Let's get on with it.