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Civil rights expert calls Buffalo’s efforts over criteria school admissions ‘disappointing’

Buffalo students now learning whether they obtained coveted spots at two of the district’s prestigious criterion schools have become the first group considered under new admissions standards developed in response to a federal discrimination complaint.

The new admissions criteria for City Honors School and Olmsted 156, agreed to by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights in January, puts less emphasis on standardized tests and subjective factors such as teacher referrals. It also eliminates the use of “absolute cut scores,” which previously ruled out students who failed to earn a certain score on admissions and standardized tests.

“Every student should have a fair chance at competing for a spot on the admissions ranking,” said Will Keresztes, the district’s chief of intergovernmental affairs, planning and community engagement. “No one shortcoming in the criteria should lead to disqualifying a student. As a result of ending this past practice, we have a fairer system that relies on the cumulative total of the admissions profile – not any single measure.”

Keresztes said it is too soon to tell whether the changes affected the demographic makeup of those accepted, and already some key players question whether they will make any difference ensuring access for students who have historically been denied admission.

“The response of the city district is really disappointing,” said Gary Orfield, the civil rights expert hired to review the admissions practices at the criteria-based schools and offer recommendations. “They’ve done some things to clean up some of the mechanics, but in terms of dealing with the hard issues like the discriminatory access of certain students, they didn’t address that.”

Although the change in the admissions criteria addresses – for now – one key part of the civil rights complaint, the district must continue to work through the other elements of its plan to respond and file monitoring reports with the federal government proving its compliance.

Leaders of the parent group that filed the original complaint are also not satisfied with the changes to the district’s system, arguing they do not go far enough to ensure all students have a fair shot at admission.

“The district has, in an effort to satisfy those parents who benefit from the status quo, agreed to another year of having this biased system in place that looks out for a small part of the population,” said Samuel L. Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council.

The issue has been ongoing since 2014, when the parent group’s complaint about the admissions practices prompted a federal investigation, which ultimately found the allegations to be credible.

To settle the issue, the district agreed to hire a consultant to research the problem and issue recommendations. Orfield delivered his recommendations in May, and it was then incumbent on school officials to come up with a plan for how they would move forward.

Along with the changes to the admissions formula, the district allowed students to take the entry exam at their home schools, instead have having to travel to a designated location on a Saturday.

That change led to some 1,900 students taking the exam to get into City Honors and Olmsted, an increase of 700 students.

The district also hired an outside agency to rank the students, whereas in the past that was handled by a school committee.

Despite those changes, Radford criticized the district for ignoring some of Orfield’s recommendations, including a proposal to open a second City Honors. District officials have said they will continue to consider that option, but are also pursuing the creation of other interest-based programs they believe will create new opportunities for students.

The district is also considering opening another 5-12 International Baccalaureate school, which is the same program offered at City Honors, and this year opened an annex to the popular Emerson School of Hospitality, one of the most in-demand schools in the district.

“Creating a City Honors II would address the needs of students eligible for such programs – with little evidence that it is the most in-demand program in the City,” administrators wrote in a response to the federal government. “It would satisfy the parents of approximately 125 students per year looking forward to vacating public, private and charter schools to access one of the most competitive schools in America.”

Still, Orfield said while the district’s school plans could help address the civil rights issue, it will depend on how well the district executes them.

“If they do those things and they’re delivered on a good level, there could be something,” he said. “But there are no assurances that will happen.”

The issue will likely draw continued scrutiny from parents, who have become increasingly aware of the challenges to gain entry into the district’s most prestigious schools.

Parent Darnell Crockett, for example, was dismayed this week when his son received a letter rejecting him from Olmsted 156 because the district never received the proper paperwork. Crockett, however, maintains that he filled out all of the forms included in the admissions packet and now questions whether his child’s school did not complete its portion.

“It was quite extensive what he had to do,” Crockett said. “Then we got a letter saying we never submitted it.”

Crockett has little faith, however, his son’s school will help him find a resolution.

“I don’t feel confident they will treat me fair,” he said. “If I go to the school with this they will treat me like a criminal.”

Keresztes said he encourages any parent with such concerns to contact their child’s school, and if there was an error, the student will be reconsidered based on any new information.

The criterion schools issue is one of three federal civil rights cases currently pending against the district.

“That’s one of the really sad things when I think about Buffalo,” Orfield said. “The city has tremendous segregation, some of the worst in the country. And it managed to overcome that. It could do it again. I just don’t see it in the district’s recommendations.”

email: tlankes@buffnews.com