School reform begs for economic diversity - The Buffalo News
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School reform begs for economic diversity

I wish John King and his cohorts would just come clean.

State Education officials are smart people. They know that, no matter what programs they force-feed to Buffalo schools stuffed with poor kids, the test-score needle won’t move much.

It’s a shell game, an accountability dodge, an effort by King & Co. to cover their backs – which are against an immovable wall.

Many people don’t want to hear it, but you could import an army of Teachers of the Year into Lafayette, East or Buffalo’s other “failing” schools without making much of a dent. Whether it’s BOCES or Johns Hopkins University or the Tooth Fairy who rides in, there will be no 180-degree turn.

Granted, that is no reason to stop trying, or not to do everything we can. But let’s stop kidding ourselves.

As reporter Sandra Tan noted Thursday in The News, the bottom half-dozen Buffalo high schools are basically dumping grounds for kids who can barely speak English, or whose grades or attitudes are so bad they can’t leap a low bar into better schools. Some were tossed back to the district by charter schools.

It’s no mystery why East and Lafayette high schools – along with dozens of other city schools – are “failing.” Experts say the best predictor of a kid’s academic performance is the education and income level of his parents. On average, four of five students walking into the half-dozen worst Buffalo high schools are poor, and some can barely speak English. It’s a formula for failure.

We as a society have done a “wonderful” job of clustering poor people in inner cities. The East and Lower West sides of Buffalo are regional warehouses for the poor. What happens in inner-city schools merely reflects the Third World nature of those neighborhoods. Is anyone surprised?

This is why education reform these days is lasered on economic integration. Studies show that poor kids do better when mixed into classrooms with higher-income kids. More than 80 districts across the country have climbed aboard the economic-diversity train.

Raleigh, N.C., was an early model. The district’s target was no school with more than 40 percent poor kids. Between magnet schools and busing, the Raleigh area – there is, key point, one regional school district – made it work – although concerns over busing distances prompted recent changes. Test scores of poorer kids elevated, without hurting better-off students. That’s what typically happens.

The poor kids benefit mostly from contact with students “who are more likely to be high-achieving and highly motivated than peers at a high-poverty school,” noted Richard Kahlenberg of the progressive Century Foundation.

Given their poverty percentages, I am surprised that graduation rates at better Buffalo schools are as high as they are. More than three-quarters of kids at DaVinci, Olmsted and Hutch-Tech graduate on time, even though the percentage of poor kids ranges from 64 percent (DaVinci) to 73 percent (Hutch-Tech). City Honors is – by test scores – the county’s top public school, even though one of every three students is poor. It has a far higher ratio of poor students than Top 5 suburban counterparts in Williamsville, East Aurora and Clarence. For all of the grief it gets, Buffalo must be doing something right.

You want a real solution for “failing” city schools? Inject economic diversity. You can’t get it in Buffalo, where 75 percent of city kids are poor. You have to adopt a single, countywide district. Then do what greater Raleigh did – shift students so that no school, city or suburb, has more than 40 percent poor kids. It means suburban kids will come into the city for specialized “magnet” schools. It means inner-city kids will cross suburban lines to benefit from contact with better-off kids, while injecting economic diversity into those schools. That’s fair, right?

I can hear the howls of protest already. Even an offhanded suggestion I made in a recent column for more mixed-income housing in the suburbs, to ease the city’s overly heavy poverty load, prompted outraged emails. I don’t usually quote anonymous contacts, but this one was typical: “Don’t ship Buffalo’s problems to the suburbs. The poor people, we don’t want them.”

Yes, I know that a countywide school district, much less mandated economic diversity, is not happening here in our lifetimes – although it would be a worthy project for State Ed to tackle. City/suburban boundaries were drawn long ago, and they might as well be walls for all the chance they have of being crossed. That message has been sent, loud and clear, for years.

State Ed may not want to hear it, but I think they understand: All of John King’s horses and all of John King’s men – whether from BOCES, Johns Hopkins or wherever– won’t put “failing” city schools back together again.

Real reform? That’s not what State Ed is selling.


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