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Buffalo school superintendent promises ‘a system reboot’

Buffalo’s new school superintendent wants the graduation rate to hit 100 percent in the next five years, and by that time, he also wants 80 percent of students meeting state standards.

On Tuesday, Kriner Cash offered for the first time some specifics on how he will try to make that happen.

Cash acknowledged that it is an ambitious goal – and that previous school leaders failed to deliver on similar promises – but said that it’s important to set the bar high.

“I think you’ve got a top-flight, experienced leader in this work now,” he said in a meeting with The Buffalo News Editorial Board.

“That is different than what you had prior. It’s a known national reputation. Whether people liked everything I did or not, people will tell you they respected what I was doing and what I did in every place that I’ve been.

“I’m serious about doing it here. This is where the work is. I wouldn’t want to be anyplace other than this. You won’t see me looking for other jobs, or running home to the vineyard every other week.”

His plan includes a focus on attendance, student safety and on overhauling parts of the district that aren’t effective.

The heart of it is creating more academic programs and choices for families, something he says will drive district outcomes.

Although he wants to make some quick gains, Cash said, the district’s ultimate success requires rebuilding the entire school system, which cannot currently deliver good results. That could take up to six years.

“This isn’t just about achievement,” he said. “This is a system reboot.”

Much of that will begin when students return to school Thursday. Though turning around student achievement takes time, Cash said, people should expect dramatic changes in how the district does business.

“The first tough decisions are coming soon,” he said.

Cash identified student attendance as a primary focus within the first month of school.

“Attendance. Attendance. Attendance. I’m going to be focusing on getting children to school on the first day and every day,” he said, adding that the district’s average daily attendance is not acceptable.

“We have an attendance issue in the district that’s well below national base line levels for elementary school … and for high school,” Cash said. “The national benchmarks for high school are 92, 93 percent,” and for elementary school, “it’s 95 percent and above.”

Comparatively, the Buffalo attendance percentage is in the 80s, he said.

“So that’s well below acceptable levels for driving achievement and for driving progress,” he said.

But at some of the school district’s highest-performing schools, the attendance percentage is in the 90s. At Emerson School of Hospitality, for instance, the attendance rate is 94 percent and the graduation rate is 87 percent, he said.

To boost student attendance, Cash said he has a multifaceted plan.

For one, he said, he will build on positives that exist already in the district, such as the Ready Freddy initiative that focuses on the importance of attendance, especially at the pre-K and kindergarten levels.

Cash also said he will continue grass-roots efforts such as attending town hall-style meetings and parent summits, as well as more personal efforts such as making phone calls to homes of students who are chronically absent and making special visits.

“I’ll go into neighborhoods and knock on doors – ‘Why isn’t your child in school?’ ” he said.

Higher achievement

Huge improvements in student attendance and achievement will only be made through huge improvements in school programming that make students actually care about coming to class, Cash said. A big part of getting students to achieve is getting them enrolled in schools that make them care about education.

Schools without admission standards need strong interest areas or career themes to keep students engaged and motivated to return each day, he said.

He suggested that such programming be related to solar energy, medical device manufacturing, biologistics, biotechnology and allied health professions. All are emerging industries in Buffalo and programs that he wants business and community leaders to help the district launch.

“Because of my experience, because of my background,” he said, “we can try a lot of things quickly if I get support from the board and from the buy-in of these impact figures in the community.”

Cash also said he would like to see new technology invested in areas where achievement data clearly shows a need. For instance, he said, the recent state grant of $1.75 million to help struggling schools with technology needs will be invested in more online programs to help high school students who are behind earn the credits they need.

Dismissing the concept of incremental progress, Cash said his desire to see 80 percent of students reach proficiency on state tests and having 100 percent of students graduating from school within five years are goals he has shared with all district leaders.

“That has to be the goal,” he said. “If you set the bar any lower, you’re going to get lower.”

Cash also said he has no problem with launching big programs midyear – including this school year – and dismissed the idea of starting out with modest pilot programs, task forces and studies. In the past, he said, he has launched everything from virtual schools to prep academies this way. His philosophy is to try a lot of things, based on best practices, and see what works and is worth keeping.

“Time is short. Time is moving,” he said, snapping his fingers. “There’s always urgency, with me, around this work.”

Cash also is dissatisfied with how the district is run and said that accountability has not been enough of a focus within the administration. That must change, he said.

‘Change management’

“I’m working on the staffing of Central Office and making sure it’s an effective organization,” he said. “It has not been effective, in my mind, to get the results it has gotten over this long time.”

Instead of having multiple people responsible for multiple components of a project, he said, for every new program that is rolled out, he will have a “lead” staff person responsible for making sure it works. That person will report directly to him.

The idea of “change management” is a hard one to adjust to, he said, but it’s necessary. Until now, he said, there has been no one held singly responsible for following through on major programs and making sure they thrive. That’s not a model for district improvement.

“The lead, then, is responsible to me for following up,” he said, “for making sure these things happen all year long.”

With a teachers contract that expired more than a decade ago and new receivership powers that allow the superintendent to make contractual changes at struggling schools, Cash needs to handle negotiations on two fronts. And his remarks about the agreement suggest he will be tough in pushing through drastic changes.

Cash talked about working through a “tough union culture here in Buffalo” that is not conducive to improving student achievement.

He also said he will likely play an active role in the negotiations.

Cash already reached out to Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore to begin talks about changes at the receivership schools – which already total nearly half the district’s schools – and emphasized that time is of the essence. The receivership guidelines require that Cash attempt to negotiate contractual changes with the union; but if the two parties cannot come to an agreement, state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia – who recommended Cash for the Buffalo job – will make the final decision.

Although Cash was hesitant to talk about specific changes he will seek, he identified several issues he plans to address. Those include seniority, evaluations and staffing procedures. He emphasized it is important to make sure schools have the best teachers for the programs they offer.

Even before becoming superintendent, Cash was actively meeting with community leaders and seeking their input on the school systems.

That outreach continues, with Cash specifically saying he plans to meet with some of the city’s most prominent figures, including members of the Rich and Jacobs families. He recently met with Mayor Byron W. Brown. On Tuesday, he planned to have dinner with banker Robert G. Wilmers.

Community involvement

Cash also noted that he has been driving around neighborhoods all over the city, from South Buffalo to the Fruit Belt, and greeting people sitting on their porches.

That’s a first step toward getting them more involved in the district, including an effort to ensure students get to school safely, which he acknowledged is an issue. Cash said he plans to call on the community to maintain a presence and observe as children travel to and from school each day.

“Walkers need support going to and from school,” he said. “We’re going to need, in all parts of town, people helping them have a safe passage.”

Cash’s success or failure achieving these goals may depend on just how long he stays in a district with high turnover in leadership positions, including superintendent.

His contract is for four years, and he said he has every intention on staying until the end.

He added that he has no intention of looking for other jobs and has leased an apartment within easy walking distance of his City Hall office.

“I want to be here for the duration of my contract,” Cash said.

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Kriner Cash outlines agenda:

Attendance: Kriner Cash says that percentages here fall below the national average and that he will make phone calls and visit homes to find out why students are not coming to school.

Academic progress: The school district needs to create more options for students, particularly programs focused on career skills and those with rigorous standards.

Accountability: There needs to be more responsibility at the school and district levels for student performance.

Teachers contract: Cash says the current agreement is not conducive to improving performance. He sees the need for changes to provisions such as seniority and staffing.

Community involvement: Stakeholders will be encouraged to get involved in activities such as neighborhood watch to make sure children get to school safely.

email: tlankes@buffnews.com, stan@buffnews.com and dswilliams@buffnews.com