If all goes as planned, the Buffalo School District will overhaul, shut down or expand at least 17 schools and programs over the next two years in an attempt to crawl out from under state and federal complaints regarding chronic underachievement and racial discrimination.
The key word is “if” in an urban education system riddled with instability and leadership troubles.
The district is under tremendous outside pressure to address both struggling schools – particularly those that already exhausted millions of dollars in federal turnaround money – as well as high-performing schools found to have discriminatory admissions standards.
District administrators have sidestepped sanctions so far by pushing a laundry list of new and expanded schools. They also are promoting new programs that target students most likely to flunk. Everything from a new program for immigrant students to a new school for pregnant teens is in the mix.
Such sweeping changes typically require long-term commitments and stable leadership. Yet Buffalo’s superintendent and chief academic and financial administrators are quitting in three weeks. The search for a new superintendent continues. Five schools are at risk for an outside takeover, and political winds continue to blow regarding an eventual takeover of the entire district.
All of this raises questions about the district’s ability to remake itself from the inside out, especially when state and federal agencies have flagged the vast majority of city schools for improvement.
“It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” said Samuel Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council. “You have all these compounding effects.”
Moreover, there are some things district decision makers can’t even begin planning for because they still need more direction from the state.
“I think that in no other year, to my knowledge, have we had these kinds of pressures on the district in addition to our own internal issues in regard to the leadership,” school board member Barbara Seals Nevergold said. “The list is not only long. The list is complex. And it has so many question marks still.”
The stakes couldn’t be higher for thousands of city students.
Casey Young, principal of the out-of-time East High School, said he is optimistic that everything will work out. He can’t afford to believe otherwise.
Though a number of teachers have transferred from East because the school can’t accept new freshmen next year, Young said his remaining staff is still focused on getting the students at his school to graduate. In the end, he said, students need their teachers and leaders to come through for them.
“Every day they have a reason to give up,” Young said, “and it’s our job to show them what could be.”
He recounted two students who recently served detention in his office. One boy’s father died when he was 6, and he was staying with a sibling because his mother drinks. The other boy also had no father in the picture. As Young drove the boys home, they teased him about his evening plans.
“What you going do, Mr. Young?” they asked. “You going to go out?”
When Young said he was taking two of his children to judo and break-dancing classes that night, they didn’t laugh.
“Man,” they told him, “that sounds like so much fun.”
“That’s what they’re about, wanting that kind of life,” Young said.
Long ‘to-do’ list
East isn’t the only school facing changes. By this fall, the district intends to relocate, expand or open four new academic programs, most affecting high schoolers.
Meanwhile, it must manage the slow-rolling shutdown of four struggling schools and make immediate changes to five others at risk of an takeover.
That means nine new schools and/or programs must be ready to open in three months, including a second Emerson School of Hospitality, a reinvented international academy for students new to the country and a new program for overage freshman.
District leaders also must lay groundwork to open another seven or eight new schools and programs the following year – including a new elementary school for the arts and a high school for pregnant teens.
In most cases, the district is being forced to make the changes on short notice.
For instance, administrators are building an alternative program this fall for overage freshmen. The program will share space at East High School because East – along with Bennett and Lafayette high schools and Martin Luther King elementary school – are being gradually phased out.
Since the three high schools can’t enroll any new ninth graders, the district discovered in March that it had no available seats for 300 incoming freshmen. As a result, every high school but the phase-out schools will see their freshman classes grow this fall. That includes South Park and Burgard, which have been flagged for an outside takeover if they don’t improve in one year’s time.
To help create more ninth-grade seats, the district is jump-starting the new alternative academy for incoming freshmen who’ve turned 16.
“We are going to take this opportunity to make lemonade out of lemons,” said David Mauricio, the district’s chief of strategic alignment and innovation, who oversees planning. “We want to do something different for this population. We know we struggle with them.”
Administrators have also been rushing to learn whether students who are supposed to be returning to Buffalo Public Schools really are coming. To that end, the Central Registration Office recently sent 7,000 letters to parents of pre-kindergarten and eighth-grade students to find whether they are sending their children back to city schools in September.
Between the letters and general canvassing, the waiting list has dropped to about 200 eighth-graders who still need spots next fall, said Mark Frazier, director of student placement. All district children will eventually land seats, he said, but there are no guarantees for parents of charter, private and other out-of-district kids who will only enroll in Buffalo Public Schools if they gain access to a high-performing school with admissions standards.
Not every problem has answers. Two city high schools and three elementary schools could fall to an outside receiver if they don’t improve with the help of more state money next school year. But the district has no proposal on how to revamp these schools yet because the state Education Department hasn’t yet provided guidelines on how to proceed, Interim Superintendent Donald Ogilvie said.
By the time that happens, Ogilvie and other key district leaders will be gone.
“The cabinet at the Central Office expects to tackle this, but what they need is leadership to work them more deeply into the organization,” Ogilvie said. “We don’t have the time frame to go in a lot of different directions. Leadership is needed.”
On that, Ogilvie and School Board members agree. Board President James Sampson said he expects that’s where the board will focus the bulk of its energy over the next few weeks.
“I have every confidence that this board is going to step up to the challenge,” he said. “I think we all appreciate the importance of identifying a permanent superintendent who has support beyond five or six board members.”
He also said he’s hopeful the board will be agree on a seasoned interim superintendent from the current staff who can keep initiatives moving starting July 1, until a permanent superintendent is found.
This optimism is tempered by the fact that the board majority and minority have radically different notions of leadership and the merits of the existing Central Office staff, whose job it would be to flesh out these academic proposals and get them funded, staffed and launched.
“The only way any superintendent can get a handle on this is through the support of staff,” said minority bloc member Nevergold.
But board majority member Carl Paladino has less faith in the staff.
“In my book, there’s chaos in every possible little corner of this district, and that’s the result of hiring staff that’s not competent,” he said.
In the shadow of these uncertainties, Ogilvie is bringing a plan to the board June 24 – his last official board meeting as interim superintendent – that lays out a time line for the redesign of the Buffalo Public Schools.
Making these concepts a reality requires both leadership and commitment, Ogilvie said. Otherwise, like many other district plans, they won’t succeed.
“The board is going to have to get to the point where they realize nobody is always right,” he said. “You cannot, by virtue of your will, make things better. This is a process.”