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Buffalo's vocational schools, once recognized as among the best in the nation, are riddled with severe problems that make it difficult for thousands of students to graduate, prepare for college or acquire the skills needed to find and keep good jobs, according to a national panel of experts.

A 99-page audit, conducted at the district's request, calls for sweeping changes in a vocational education program that serves nearly 8,000 students. It says the Buffalo Public Schools fail to:

Adequately train and guide vocational, career and technical teachers.

Provide adequate equipment and textbooks.

Monitor and revise courses.

Use student test-score data to make needed improvements.

Instead, the report said, the program is drifting.

"Political biases and practices, turf protection and traditions impact the decisions regarding programs, facilities and staffing in such a way that data-driven and rational actions are frequently difficult," said the International Curriculum Management Audit Center of Phi Delta Kappa International, a consulting group based in Bloomington, Ind.

"With no policy guidance in critical areas, (teachers) are left to their own choices and function more as independent contractors than as members of a guided and directed system."

For example, auditors examined more than 150 documents that teachers consider to be curriculum guides and said not one was adequate.

The report said 7,664 students are enrolled in five vocational or technical high schools, one vocational-technical center for juniors and seniors, scattered programs in largely academic high schools, and less-extensive programs in grades 7 and 8.

The district's 39 vocational offerings range from automotive technology to aquatic ecology, from cosmetology to finance, and from welding to architecture.

The district got just what it asked for when it commissioned the audit -- a hard-nosed guide to reform, according to David Hess, Buffalo's assistant superintendent for secondary, adult and continuing education.

"We told them: 'Be specific. Be tough. We want to redesign the schools. We want to be competitive,' " Hess said. "They took off the gloves, and they did it."

Many of the group's recommendations are already being implemented, and the Board of Education wants him to proceed quickly on others, Hess said.

"We're going for progress," he said. "We're moving ahead."

The report is an accurate reflection of the district's recent neglect of and disregard for vocational education, said Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation.

"We had one of the finest programs anywhere in the 1960s and 1970s," he said. "There was a movement away from vocational education. It's sort of like an elitist view."

Charter school on vocations

The problems with vocational education is the key reason why a a group of local business owners are opening the Charter School for Applied Technologies in September in the Town of Tonawanda, said Fred B. Saia, president of Oneida Concrete Products. The school is designed to prepare students for technical jobs such as machinists, welders, engineers and computer-repair specialists.

"Those kind of kids have gotten short shrift for years," said Saia, a leader of the charter school effort. "We've given up on an entire generation of craftsmen in this country."

The audit said the deficiencies in Buffalo's vocational education program are "especially troublesome" because the state is phasing in a requirement that students -- including those in vocational programs -- pass five Regents exams to graduate.

Some vocational students lack courses needed to meet those Regents standards because the Buffalo schools have exhibited "little collaboration and cooperation among academic and vocational teachers in course planning or delivery," the report said.

Though the report focuses strictly on the school district's internal policies and practices, its findings are certain to heighten these broader concerns:

The state Board of Regents recently passed measures allowing school districts to design career and technical courses that also meet the Regents requirements. But by depicting the district's failure to adequately handle more basic educational functions, the report raises questions about its ability to create courses sophisticated enough to serve both the academic and technical needs of students.

If that effort is unsuccessful, many Buffalo vocational students are expected to spend five or even six years in high school to meet all their requirements.

The crucial need of local businesses for workers trained in a wide variety of increasingly technical fields. In contrast, the report paints a picture of a school system that has failed to respond to technological changes in its curriculum, is not training teachers in up-to-date skills and continues to use obsolete equipment.

Dennis Richards, president of Richards Machine Tool Co. in Lancaster, said he is able to find enough machinists only because there have been widespread layoffs in the industry.

"As far as hands-on, skilled tradesmen, all the schools are failing, including Buffalo," he said. "It's a big problem and has been a big problem for a long time."

Local businesses are having serious difficulties filling technical jobs, and are having to do more and more training because employees lack the skills, said Patricia Pitts, work-force development manager for the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, a local business organization.

"That's what we hear from our membership," she said.

City schools reacting

Hess said school officials are revising curriculum guides, integrating vocational and academic instruction, beefing up teacher development, improving summer school for students entering vocational schools next year and reviewing existing courses.

"We still are offering very, very good programs," he said. "We have the basics. What we have to do now is look at our programs one by one, determine where the job market is and determine whether there's a calling for the skills we're teaching."

Some programs will likely be eliminated, and others will be consolidated, Hess said.

Though the report is sweeping in its criticism, Hess stressed that many vocational courses are already up-to-date and relevant to the needs of business and industry.

At Hutchinson-Central Technical High School, 37 students are taking a computer networking course designed to lead to certification from Cisco Corp., a leader in computer technology. Students are required to take drafting, electronics and computer-aided design before they are eligible for the networking class.

Teachers and administrators at Hutch-Tech have been meeting for the past month to review, improve and better coordinate the school's technical courses, said Susan Berkowitz, program coordinator.

"We just decided this was something we need to do in our building," she said. "Hopefully we're going to get all of it done by June."

Blue ribbon review

The report comes just three months after a separate blue-ribbon panel of national educators said Buffalo's schools are plagued by organizational disarray, low expectations for students, distrust and disrespect among the administration and staff, too much busing and not enough school choice.

The earlier report, prepared by the Council of the Great City Schools, sparked a districtwide reform effort that is now in its infancy.

The vocational education audit was conducted by Sue S. Greene, an educational management consultant from Olympia, Wash.; Joseph R. Busch, superintendent of the Harpursville Central School District; Jeffrey Ellingsen, director of secondary education for the Chino Valley School District in California; and Gene Johnson, associate superintendent for secondary administrative services in the Shawnee Mission School District in suburban Kansas City.

They conducted interviews, reviewed documents and visited Buffalo schools for four days in October.

Like the earlier report, the vocational education audit criticizes Buffalo's residency requirement for new teachers, saying it is "counterproductive to attaining the goal of quality instruction and well-staffed programs in the schools."

The audit found vocational and technical instruction highly uneven, both from school to school and within schools.

For example, 73 percent of Hutch-Tech's graduates earned Regents diplomas in 1997-98 -- well above the state average -- while both Burgard and Emerson Vocational High School had no Regents graduates.

The culinary arts program at Emerson Vocational High School -- in which students operate a downtown restaurant -- drew praise from the auditors, but they said other offerings there are lagging.

The audit also made these points:

Evaluation of vocational courses is so weak it does not provide a basis to "adjust, improve or terminate programs."

"Without formally adopted curricula, teachers in various programs are left to their own direction to determine what they will teach."

Student performance data is not used to assess classroom programs or to determine budget priorities.

There is growing concern, the audit said, that many students denied admission to their first-choice vocational schools are often the young people most likely to benefit from hands-on learning and technical training.

"Instead, they are left with the neighborhood academic school option and fewer vocationally oriented courses," it said.

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