Superintendent to propose overhauls for Bennett, MLK schools after years of failure - The Buffalo News
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Superintendent to propose overhauls for Bennett, MLK schools after years of failure

Two Buffalo schools are facing dramatic overhauls after years of consistently failing to meet state standards, and the district’s proposed changes will likely involve starting new programs that focus on careers in the sciences.

Superintendent Pamela C. Brown is expected to present the School Board with new plans for Bennett High School and Martin Luther King Multicultural Institute during its meeting tonight.

In an email to board members over the weekend, Brown wrote that she met with state education leaders last week and that they mandated that the district either close the two schools at the end of this school year, or gradually phase them out and replace them with new programs.

“In the case of Bennett and MLK, the State team shared serious concerns about the instructional and leadership practices that they observed,” Brown wrote, referring to visits that state officials made to the schools.

The superintendent then released a statement Tuesday emphasizing that she is consulting with key stakeholders on developing plans for the two schools.

“We are continuing our discussions with school leaders, staff members and families to re-launch and/or implement a phase-in/phase-out turnaround model at these two schools so that their students can experience a higher rate of success and be well prepared for their future,” Brown wrote.

Bennett and MLK are just two of the schools that have drawn state scrutiny as the district continues its struggle to improve student performance. Last year, state leaders ordered the district to work with Johns Hopkins University to try to improve programs at East and Lafayette high schools. A number of other schools remain on state watch lists as “focus” or “priority” schools. Just 12 of Buffalo’s 57 schools are considered in good standing.

Brown previously presented plans to restructure Bennett and MLK last December, and then hoped to close and reopen them either in partnership with or under the management of an outside agency, such as a charter school or an educational partnership organization.

The district issued a request for proposals and received three applications. But the plans submitted by those potential partners were rejected by faculty at the two schools, according to Brown’s email.

Now, as mandated by the state, the district needs to move in another direction.

School Board members indicated that the plans for MLK involve replacing that school with a new Medical Campus School, which would introduce students to careers in the medical profession.

In an email to staff, MLK Principal Ramona Reynolds wrote that the school – currently prekindergarten through eighth grade – will close and reopen as the Medical Campus School starting this fall with students in grades 5, 6, 9 and 10. Each year additional grades would be added, and by 2017. the school would serve fifth- through 12th-graders.

School Board members have been discussing the concept of a medical high school that would offer career-oriented courses such as health information technology and health facility management. That plan has been discussed as a traditional high school, serving ninth- through 12th-graders, and students would spend part of their time doing apprenticeships at the nearby Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

The district, however, has struggled to identify a location for the school. Several School Board members said the mandate to revamp MLK – at 487 High St. – offers an opportunity to move forward on the Medical Campus School and expose students to career options at a younger age.

“The way to really do that is to front-load them in grammar school,” said board member John B. Licata, who has been pushing to move forward on the Medical Campus School.

That’s little comfort, however, to parents who were previously told that their students could remain at MLK. Now, only those students entering fifth, sixth and ninth grades next year would be able to apply for the new school. All other MLK students would be relocated to other schools in the district.

“They’re livid,” said Samuel L. Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council. “They already knew that the school would be relaunched, but were told it would not affect students. Now, you’re telling parents in March that they have to go from one failing school to another. All the good schools are already full.”

Staff would also have to reapply for their jobs, according to Reynolds’ email.

Plans for Bennett are not yet as clear, but several sources said the revamped school will also likely focus on science careers.

School Board member Jason M. McCarthy said that could involve a partnership with the University at Buffalo, which already has partnerships at several schools and has been planning to launch a pharmacy program at Bennett.

“This was a brief discussion about the direction the superintendent wants to move in,” said McCarthy, who discussed the plan with Brown during the board’s executive committee meeting this week. “We do have to make these changes because they’re state-mandated.”

Plans for both Bennett and MLK would have to be approved by the state.

Bennett has been under scrutiny for years, as past reform efforts have yielded little results, and money to find solutions has run out.

During an October site visit, state reviewers flagged both the leadership and teaching practices at Bennett.

According to their report, when reviewers asked Principal Terry Ross to discuss the systems he was implementing to improve performance, he told them he had been there for only 28 days and had not yet created a plan. No teachers had had formal observations, and there did not appear to be a system for providing teachers with feedback, the reviewers reported.

They also said that students were not being exposed to rigorous work; most classes had just 14 students and multiple adults, but lessons were driven by worksheets. In only one class were the teacher and a tutor walking around the room working with students and answering questions.

In some classrooms, teachers moved through lessons disregarding students’ incorrect answers and questions.

The district already runs several science programs in conjunction with UB through the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Partnership. The partnership’s director, Joseph A. Gardella Jr., said he had not yet been approached by the district about taking on a greater role at Bennett, but would be willing to discuss it.

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