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State demands more work on Buffalo Schools’ student transfer plan

The state Education Department has – for the third time – informed the Buffalo school district that its plans to transfer students out of underperforming schools isn’t good enough.

The state has, however, finally accepted the school turnaround plans for East and Lafayette high schools. That gives Buffalo the green light to have Johns Hopkins University operate the two high schools, with Erie 1 BOCES providing vocational classes to students there.

In a letter to Superintendent Pamela Brown, State Deputy Education Commissioner Ken Slentz said the district’s revised student transfer plan “still lacks sufficient detail in terms of goals, progress targets, activities, time lines, documentation and measurement strategies.”

In speaking with The Buffalo News, Slentz reiterated a common complaint by the state Education Department, that the amount of direction and feedback required for the Buffalo school district to submit acceptable plans is more than has ever been required by any of the state’s other 694 school districts.

“We’ve never had to do this for a district before,” he said. “We’ve provided technical assistance to any district along the way – never to this degree. It’s been kind of a frustrating experience for us, the fact that we have to tell them to do things that should be natural thoughts.”

The district has until Sept. 30 to resubmit its plan to accommodate all transfer requests to move students in struggling schools to schools in good standing with the state. The district received more than 2,200 such requests this year but came up with a plan to immediately accommodate only 300 to 500 of them.

The feedback from the state criticizes the school district for not involving key stakeholders, such as parents, in the revised plan. It also demands a much more aggressive timeline for attempting to accommodate student transfer requests.

Finally, Slentz’s letter acknowledges the need for further revision because of the closing of Pinnacle Charter School. The status of Pinnacle and the high level of feedback required by Buffalo contributed to the long delay in responding to the revised plan the district submitted last month, Slentz said.

District administrators said they appreciate the feedback and will further revise their plan while moving forward with efforts to transfer students.

“We have a plan that appears to work, that appears to be positioning the district very well to create capacity,” said Will Keresztes, the district’s chief of student support services. “We just have to address some issues that were previously unknown when we first submitted this plan.”

He described the deputy commissioner’s requirements as providing “sensible direction” to the district on a “work in progress.” He also said, however, that the revisions required by the state have changed over time.

“What was previously submitted under one body of recommendations is now changing another set of recommendations,” he said.

Brown also described the state’s requirements as an “evolving process” for the district, in which some direction initially appeared to be offered as options, but have since turned out to be directives.

“It has definitely been a learning process and an evolving process over the last few months,” she said.

She also pointed out that the deputy commissioner’s letter noted that the district made “significant progress” in its last submission to the state.

The state first rejected the plan as too vague in May. Then, on Aug. 10, Slentz sent a letter to Brown pointing to six areas in the revised plan that, if not addressed, would result in “no possibility” for state approval.

The latest plan, approved, 6-3, by the School Board but denounced by parent activists last month, is weak in several areas, according to the state:

• It does not make enough seats available to students by the start of the 2014-15 school year.

For instance, plans to open and convert city schools to schools in good standing with the state, and to partner with other public school districts or charter schools, must be completed by September 2014, not by September 2015.

It was previously understood, as noted in prior written feedback by the state, that the student transfer plan would be a multiyear plan, Keresztes said, so it was surprising to the district that the state wants the timeline shortened.

Slentz responded that while the district will clearly need more than one year to accommodate all transfer requests, comprehensive planning must be done upfront.

“Absent that ... planning, there’s real risk of not placing these students where they rightfully deserve to be placed,” he said.

• The plan does not provide sufficient detail on how it will be implemented and supported.

• It does not include feedback or participation from other stakeholders, such as parents, teachers and community organizations. Both Brown and Keresztes said this was not originally stipulated by the state.

“There was a lack of clarity, previously, on what the level of involvement of stakeholders should be,” Keresztes said. “Now that they’ve determined that, indeed, they do want some stakeholder input, I think those are very sensible considerations.”

Slentz said the state shouldn’t have to point out the obvious.

“It is disheartening to hear the district say, ‘We didn’t know we had to include stakeholders in a school choice plan,’ ” he said. “That’s preposterous to me.”

Parents have complained the plan does not go far enough to address deep-rooted inequities in the district, which they say result in students with the highest needs being concentrated in the worst-performing schools.

Keresztes, however, stressed that the student transfer plan is not a substitute for improving academic achievement districtwide.

“Moving students around the city cannot be the way we face the challenges of our city,” he said.

Slentz, however, said the district needs to look at the student transfer plan as a leadership opportunity, not as “just a compliance exercise.”

Overall, he said, the district has habitually interpreted state feedback literally and narrowly instead of using its advice as “thinking prompts” for broader consideration on how the district can be revamped.

To aid the district in this effort, the state attached several detailed worksheets that it wants the district to complete as part of its next revision.

In related news, Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. issued a letter Tuesday stating that, after repeated attempts, the district has finally submitted acceptable school turnaround applications for East and Lafayette high schools.

He also sent a separate letter granting approval for the district to enter into agreements with Johns Hopkins University to supervise East and Lafayette high schools, and for BOCES to provide vocational services to both schools.

The letter also gives the district the green light to have the Westminster Foundation oversee Highgate Heights School 80, and for Research to Practice to oversee Buffalo Elementary School of Technology.

These outside organizations would assume the duties and responsibilities of the superintendent in turning around these four struggling schools.

“We were absolutely delighted to learn the plans and contracts for these four schools have been approved,” Brown said.

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