Here’s how illusions shatter: They fracture and turn to dust in the unsparing glare of reality.
That’s what last week’s in-depth stories on the International High School at Prospect Heights did to the lie that Buffalo schools are doing all that they can for the students at Lafayette High School, where students go to fail.
Lafayette’s on-time graduation rate is 26 percent. It’s pathetic, even given the school’s very real challenges, including a large number of non-English speaking students. Yet at Brooklyn’s International School – also home to a large number of non-English speaking students – the graduation rate is 66 percent.
The lie, repeated by some Buffalo educators, is that the comparison is unfair because of demographic differences. Buffalo has more refugees, for example, and not all of the 15 schools in the Internationals Network do as well as Prospect Heights.
But the schools also have a lot in common, including similar enrollments and racial diversity, no academic admissions standards, many students who speak little or no English and a large proportion of students with little formal education in their native countries. So, forget the canard that the schools’ differences alone somehow account for a 40 percentage point chasm in their graduation rates. It’s not true.
Clearly, Prospect Heights is doing something that Buffalo is not. That’s the fact. Another one is that instead of making excuses about differences between the schools, Buffalo could choose to learn from Prospect Heights’ success. That’s what it should choose. Indeed, it is startling that it hasn’t already.
One of the main differences Buffalo educators would find is that in Prospect Heights, the students are also teachers. It’s a formulation with benefits that radiate throughout the enterprise.
At a recent visit to the school, News reporter Sandra Tan observed kids working closely in groups, marking and exchanging papers, translating for their peers and debating various topics. They work on themed projects that can run for months at a time. Desks are moved to where they are most useful, which is not anything resembling well-ordered rows.
Students with strong skills, in English or academics, work with peers who need tutoring. Those in early grade levels are combined in a single class so those who know more can help those who know less. Children in ninth and 10th grades also work together. So do teachers, who collaborate in teams, incorporating English language instruction in every subject, rather than teaching it separately.
That’s not anything like what happens in Buffalo, though Lafayette has at least one thing in common with the International School at Prospect Heights: teachers who truly care about the students they are charged with educating. That counts for a lot – without it, there would be little chance of success – but, plainly, it’s not enough.
Buffalo needs to look to examples like the International School for patterns to emulate. Former Superintendent Pamela C. Brown resisted taking advice or direction from other professionals, and that was among the reasons that she soon lost community support.
At the same time, though, the district needs to invest in training teachers at Lafayette and other schools heavily populated by students for whom English is a foreign language. It also needs a focused recruiting program to bring in teachers with that experience, with the expectation that they will not only help students learn, but help teachers learn to teach these challenged students.
This is a new day for the Buffalo School District. It has a new School Board that seems ready to look for creative ways to break out of the big-city mold of failing schools. It has a new interim superintendent with a track record of success and a commitment to working with the board and the community.
This is the moment to reach. The same old prescriptions offered in the same old way haven’t worked in the past and won’t work going forward. There are institutional role models out there for the school district to emulate and shape for best use in Buffalo. If the school district can do that, students at Lafayette may find the kind of success that has come to many in Prospect Heights. And, almost as good, other struggling districts may some day find in Buffalo a model they can adapt for their own students.