Superintendent Pamela C. Brown's latest proposal to turn around three of Buffalo's most struggling schools is being met by criticism from two influential stakeholder groups.
Leaders of both the Buffalo Teachers Federation and the District Parent Coordinating Council say that Brown and her administration failed to consult teachers and parents before telling the Board of Education that she wants to close the three schools and relaunch them with different academic programs or new management.
“There was no community input,” said Samuel L. Radford III, president of the parent council. “There was no stakeholder input. The district just went behind closed doors and made that decision.”
In an email statement, Brown emphasized that the plan to close Bennett High School, Harvey Austin School and Martin Luther King Multicultural Institute is still in its early stages. District officials are working on a request for proposals from agencies that might be interested in partnering on programs at the three schools. Then, in January, school leaders would seek feedback from the community.
“The Board of Education has not rendered any decision on the acceptance of any proposals or the re-launch of any school and will only do so after the thoughtful review of proposals from interested partners,” Brown wrote.
The tension underscores much of the difficulty the city district has faced in its efforts to turn around struggling schools, which consistently fail to meet state academic standards.
Buffalo schools face increasing pressure to improve student performance, even in the face of tougher standards under the state's Common Core reform effort. The three schools Brown wants to close have all landed on the state's list of schools that have consistently failed to show improvement.
Bennett High and Martin Luther King Multicultural were also cited in a recent visit by state Education Department officials as showing serious issues in leadership, instructional climate and a lack of rigor related to the Common Core standards. Lafayette High was also cited for the same reasons.
State and federal guidelines call for strict penalties for schools that fail to improve, sanctions that often cost staff members their jobs – at least at those particular schools – or lead to school closures.
But despite the drastic effect that these reform efforts can have on schools, the Buffalo district's administration is often criticized for not consulting with the people most affected – students, teachers and parents – when drafting turnaround plans.
BTF President Philip Rumore said the decision to close and reopen the three schools represents a failure of school leadership, not teachers. Yet teachers are likely to pay the price because two of the three options being considered by the district would require the transfer of at least half the teachers in the building.
“The issue of the schools not performing well, doesn't the buck stop on the principal's and the superintendent's desk?” Rumore asked. “The bottom line with these three schools, and Bennett in particular, is the lack of leadership.”
Brown's plan, which follows state guidelines for improving failing schools, would involve bringing in outside agencies to help oversee the schools' improvement. Two of the models call for transferring management of the school from the district to an education agency or a charter school. Under the third option, the district would retain oversight but bring in an outside partner for assistance.
Regarding the possible conversion of a school to a charter, there is currently only one conversion charter school in the district, Westminster Community Charter School. Teachers at that school are members of the BTF but are not technically employed by the district.
The district also has a number of schools being overseen by what are called “educational partnership organizations,” such as Johns Hopkins University working to improve programs at East and Lafayette high schools.
The plans would have minimal effect on students – all would have the option to still attend the schools when they reopen – but would essentially reset the clock, buying the district more time to improve performance before facing more drastic penalties. Any of the plans would put those schools in good standing, making them available for students who attend failing schools and are legally entitled to transfer to one in good standing. Pressure from the parent group to find spots for about 2,100 students who requested transfers out of failing schools has pushed the district to create more schools in good standing.
After repeated failed attempts by the district, the state Education Department approved a student transfer plan calling for creation of two new schools, as well as the closure and reopening of others.
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