It appears to be one of those things that keeps happening because it’s always been done that way. But, however the Buffalo School District’s system of assigning students to high schools came about, it is a demonstrable failure to too many students and needs to be recast. Fortunately, that’s what the district’s superintendent has in mind.
The problem is evident from the system, if that’s what you call it, by which those selections have been made. That job was entrusted to small “selection” committees at individual high schools. Those committees focused on grades, discipline record and student needs, but the actual criteria used varied from school to school.
That’s not a system. It’s a free for all.
The results are predictable: As schools cherry-pick the students they see as most desirable, the district has settled into a two-tier structure. Students whose grades are lower or who have behavior problems or language issues, end up in the districts lower-performing traditional high schools, rather than the specialized or popular ones.
It is, admittedly, a tricky proposition. Specialized schools, by definition, are going to want certain students, whose needs and ambitions should be served. But alarm bells should go off when the result is to group struggling students in schools that chronically fail to measure up.
That would be true under the best of circumstances, but when it is the result of an erratic process that foments inequality, it invites legal challenge. It’s time to fix this.
Ferry District School Board Member Sharon Belton-Cottman raised the issue recently, noting the glaring lack of fairness and wondering why schools need to be involved in the acceptance process to begin with. It’s a good question. Why not assign this to the district’s central office?
Superintendent Kriner Cash also sees the problem, and has directed administrators to fix it. “Over time it became clear, we had actually developed – wittingly and unwittingly – a school system of two different tiers of opportunities for our students,” he said.
Plainly, a more predictable and equitable system needs to be devised.
District officials have identified the schools at greatest risk in this non-system, and they are among the most troubled: Burgard, East, International Preparatory, Math Science Technology and South Park. They, and their students, suffered as committees reviewing candidates would rank than as “qualified” or “not qualified,” based on vague criteria.
For example, 167 eighth-graders were ranked last year as “not qualified” for any of the high schools. Central Registration placed those students at schools with open seats.
The problem, Cash said, was in the applications, themselves, and the reviews.
“For years and years, while we would say we accept all students, the truth is there were little questions – dastardly little things in these applications and in some cases the interviews – that would either self-select or directly select students out of that school.”
It’s important that this is being fixed, but there is also a question that should be answered: How did that system came about, in the first place? What is merely an accident, or was it created in an effort to discriminate against certain students for inappropriate reasons? Systems are supposed to ensure predictability. The predictable consequence of this one was decades of unfairness.
Cash again: “And that just doesn’t seem like what public schools should do. Equal and high-quality opportunity should be available for all of our students all of the time.”
Why is that a hard concept to master?