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Diversity still a challenge at City Honors, despite recent efforts

These are anxious days for Buffalo parents waiting word from arguably the most prestigious school in the city and wondering: Did my kid get in?

Acceptance letters for City Honors are due out this week, and a series of changes in admissions to force more racial diversity in the school has made the process more competitive.

Up for grabs are 154 seats spread throughout grades 5 to 9.

But about 2,400 students took the admissions test – nearly double the 1,300 who tested the prior year, as the district expanded testing sites.

Among those were more than 1,000 black students – more than triple the 200 to 300 who usually test for City Honors and Olmsted 156, said Superintendent Kriner Cash.

“I know that the access issue has extremely improved to an impressive degree, and that’s part of what we’re trying to do – increase access to apply,” Cash said.

But that may not resolve the issue.

The district said it won’t officially know City Honors' racial makeup for next year until early summer after families have accepted an offer. Cash, however, hinted that despite efforts – including a lottery that gives preference to students in Buffalo Public Schools – the outcome may still be a little disappointing.

“I’m not sure percentages are going to be where we want them,” Cash said, “so I think there’s going to be more work to do.”

There’s no set goal for what might be an appropriate racial breakdown for City Honors, but the superintendent said it must be better than it is now: 59 percent white, 17 percent black and 24 percent other minorities.

Cash thought somewhere between equal thirds or 40 percent white, 40 percent black and 20 percent some other race could be a goal. That's compared to a district enrollment that is 20 percent white, 48 percent black, and 32 percent "other."

The district needs to work on narrowing the achievement gap between whites and blacks across schools so more students are academically prepared to compete for a spot at City Honors, Cash said. Thirty-four percent of the district's white students in grades 3 through 8 met state reading standards last year, compared to just 11 percent of black students.

But the superintendent didn’t rule out setting aside seats for more minorities at City Honors to help achieve equity – even if that does raise some legal questions.

“It’s a great, great school and I don’t want to mess with quality and caliber, but I think there are talented children of color that could and should get more seats,” Cash said.

He also left the door open for creating a second City Honors.

A step back

The school on East North Street includes grades 5 through 12 and has an enrollment of 1,069.

Known for its rigorous International Baccalaureate program that stresses higher standards and critical thinking, City Honors is considered one of the best schools in the district – if not the United States. City Honors is regularly mentioned on lists of best schools in the nation.

Its graduation rate last year was 98 percent – better than most of the area’s suburban schools – while more than a third of its students qualified for a free or reduced-price lunch, an education system measure of poverty.

But the diversity issue has been bubbling for more than two years, since a parent group filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education alleging discrimination in admissions practices. It forced the district to make changes.

The first year, Buffalo tweaked the admissions procedures.

It ranked each student based on several indicators, such as grade point average and admissions tests; brought in an independent consultant, Via Evaluation of Buffalo, to handle the process; and offered the admissions test for City Honors and Olmsted in schools across the district – a big reason for the bump in students taking the test.

But that didn’t work.

The percentage of minorities, as a whole, did go up a bit, continuing a slow rise at the school over the past few years.

But the share of black students in City Honors actually went down slightly to 17.6 percent at a time when enrollment is growing and African-Americans make up nearly half the district's population. It's a downward trend at City Honors that goes back at least 18 years, when black students comprised 31 percent of the school's enrollment, figures show.

The school itself has no part in deciding who is admitted, said Principal William Kresse.

In fact, Kresse said, placement at the school has been dictated by an admissions process set up by the School Board and the Education Department's Office of Civil Rights more than a decade ago,  when the federal government stepped in to provide a more equitable system.

"If we've historically advocated for anything, it's that those making these decisions have an eye to what gives students of all backgrounds an opportunity to show they can handle the accelerated work here," Kresse said.

Narrowing the requirements

The district tried again. This year, it required that students be residents of Buffalo before taking the admissions test, a move designed to eliminate the possibility that non-district students were gaming the system. It also no longer took into account teacher recommendations.

In addition, the School Board suspended the use of scores from state assessment tests as part of the admissions formula, because of an ongoing state review of the standardized testing.

That change, in particular, has been a sore spot, because many believe the state tests – or a similar academic assessment – would boost the chances for minority students to get into City Honors, as opposed to simply taking a cognitive test that critics feel discriminate against minorities.

The changes left just three factors for determining admission to the school: a cognitive test, grade point average and attendance.

The three were used to compile a cumulative score of 20 possible points for each student.

But that also has created a logjam of kids with the same score. The district implemented a lottery system to break ties and award 26 of the 154 seats for next year, said Will Keresztes, the district’s chief of intergovernmental affairs, planning and community engagement.

Preference was given to students in Buffalo Public Schools.

The School Board steered the outcome in their favor by deciding that only students attending a Buffalo Public School – not a charter or private – would be included in the lottery when there are not enough available seats.

"There are certainly more highly qualified BPS students that will receive acceptances this year," Keresztes said.

"Of the 154 openings, 105 were awarded to currently enrolled BPS students; 49 were awarded to students in charter, non-public or home schools," he said. "In the past, the majority of students were enrolled from non-BPS schools in most years."

The head of the parent group that filed the complaint with the Office of Civil Rights has mixed feelings about the district's course of action at City Honors.

Instead of adopting all the changes recommended by a civil rights consultant, the district selected only the ones it wanted to, said Samuel L. Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council.

The parent group would have made more of a public denouncement when the proportion of black students went down at City Honors this school year, but Radford said he is confident the superintendent is genuine about resolving this issue.

"We're being patient," Radford said. "People are hopeful it is going to be fairer this year."

Aggressive action

The superintendent said he will be aggressive in achieving a more equitable racial makeup at City Honors.

“I’m not convinced it has to mirror the population of the district; all competitive schools have a little bit of difference," Cash said. “But it needs to be improved from where it is and be somewhere in the middle.”

Cash said he will talk to parents and the School Board first, but is willing to consider setting aside a certain number of seats at City Honors for high-achieving minority students. That would include both an interview and portfolio process.

But setting aside seats by race would likely face a strong legal challenge.

"That doesn't mean we're not examining it," Keresztes said. "When trying to dismantle many years of underrepresentation at any school, everything is on the table."

Opening a second City Honors – one of the consultant's recommendations – also has been discussed and remains an option.

"I'm open to talking about what a City Honors II would look like," Cash said. "I have not closed the door on that."

But, he said, it's difficult to duplicate a unique school that took decades to become what it is now.

Cash said it also would do a disservice to a new City Honors, which would run the risk of being considered a "junior" version or "the other one."

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