Share this article

print logo

BUILDING BLOCKS

ORGANIZATION

The district organization is on auto pilot. It hasn't been overhauled in years and has shortcomings:

The commission found that much of the district's organization is developed around the task of processing paperwork rather than on instruction.

The district's downtown administration relies on a top-down decision-making process that runs contrary to the bottom-up system of school-based management teams put in place last fall.

The central administration does not sufficiently encourage and recognize risk-taking and innovation.

The district is not results oriented.

The district collects a lot of information it is required to compile, but it does little with the information to evaluate the effectiveness of programs, individual schools and the system as a whole.

Many in the system believe the structure of the downtown administration needs to be overhauled to encourage innovation and collaboration and focus more on curriculum and less on bureaucracy.

"There has to be a whole new atmosphere," Palano said. "You have to think smart and work efficiently. You have to be willing to take risks."

Pupil services

The dissolution of the family structure, the rise in poverty and the explosion of drug use and street violence are sending thousands of troubled youngsters through the schoolhouse doors every day.

The schools lack the money and expertise to deal with most of them, however, and many children languish in the classrooms. Many teachers and principals contend that the schools risk being overwhelmed.

"We have kids with serious problems and no one and no programs to take care of them," said Gregg Hejmanowski, principal of West Hertel Academy in Black Rock. "We have a captive audience in our schools. There is no good reason why all kinds of services couldn't be offered through the schools."

Collaboration with outside agencies is regarded as vital. The schools provide the kids and space for facilities, the agencies the services.

It's a win-win-win situation. Children and their families would get the help they need, schools would get better-adjusted students to educate and agencies would get the opportunity to provide their services in a more effective manner.

"It would make a tremendous difference in the lives of those children," said Denise Segars-McPhatter, principal of School 31.

Working with agencies to set up shop in schools would be part of a larger effort to open the schools to the community. The district operates two "community schools" -- School 53 and Herman Badillo Academy. Such schools are needed in neighborhoods across the city.

Community schools vary according to the needs of the neighborhood, but the basic concept is to keep them open evenings and weekends. Outside groups such as city-funded community-based organizations could provide the programs. The possibilities are numerous and include day-care and latch-key services, tutoring and recreational programs, adult education and parenting classes.

"I'd like to see the school become the center of the neighborhood," said School 71 Principal Murray Eisinger.

There are two additional steps the district could take on the educational front to help children:

Hire more guidance counselors. Junior high students in particular suffer because guidance counselors in the city have much heavier caseloads than their counterparts the suburbs.

Make full-day prekindergarten and kindergarten programs available in all neighborhood schools, as they are at early childhood centers. Two of 16 neighborhood schools still lack full-day kindergarten programs, and many lack prekindergartens.

Teachers and principals say prekindergarten helps many disadvantaged kids to catch up.

"Get them when they are three, four, five, up to seven," said Letizia Conrad, principal of the Sedita Community School on the West Side. "If you've built a firm foundation, you won't have to worry about kids dropping out later."

Curriculum

City educators are faced with the same challenge in the classroom as their counterparts across the country: update curriculum, teaching styles and assessment methods.

To succeed, some educators say, schools must:

Teach the way children learn

Many teachers teach primarily one way, lecturing pupils in front of the class. Research shows the lecture method is the least effective way of retaining information. A growing body of research shows that students learn best when they are active learners. They engage in hands-on experiments. They work among themselves in teams.

"A lot of our students learn better by doing than listening," said Robert Barton, principal of Kensington High School.

Teach students what they need to learn.

Students still need to learn the traditional basics: how to read, how to write, how to do math. But the basics go beyond the three Rs. Higher order thinking skills, such as problem solving, also are important.

Assess student progress in meaningful ways.

The district has made the most progress changing teaching methods, the least in altering how they assess students. It's still pretty much pencil on paper tests and standard report cards. A handful of city elementary schools have adopted what is called "authentic assessment." Pupil evaluations are comprehensive and supplemented with portfolios of the pupil's work.

An overhaul of curriculum would involve at least one additional expense: retraining for many teachers.

"In-servicing is very important to motivate teachers and to bring in fresh ideas," said James Horrigan, a veteran principal who retired last summer.

HIGH SCHOOLS

High schools are the most pressing problem. Many are in serious trouble: academic offerings are limited, student achievement poor.

"High schools have to be the priority because they are what convinces people to leave the city," said School Board President Donald Van Every.

The Board of Education, at the urging of At Large Member Helene Kramer, plans to review the high schools with an eye on a major overhaul.

There are two primary goals, Ms. Kramer said.

Provide a better education to students not attending the magnet schools.

Make the non-magnet schools more attractive to students who now prefer magnet or private schools.

Many educators believe the best way to improve the non-magnet high schools is to scrap the current set up. Instead of separate academic and vocational high schools, comprehensive high schools would be established. A greater variety of electives would be offered as well as more Regents courses. Vocational programs and equipment would be updated.

Each comprehensive high school could offer distinct programs. Each school might offer a mini-magnet program or electives in particular fields.

Such an overhaul might involve a cost-saving consolidation of the 10 academic and vocational high schools, plus the Buffalo Vocational Training Center.

Marlies Wesolowski, who represents the East District on the School Board, feels that no matter how the high schools are revamped, they must be available to students citywide.

"I'd like to move to a system where all high schools are high schools of choice," she said. "The idea is to get schools to improve themselves, and the only way they are going to do that is if they compete for students."

ELEMENTARY Schools

At the elementary level, both the magnet and neighborhood-based schools require rethinking.

Many believe the magnet program, while fundamentally sound, needs to be revisited. Many magnets continue to thrive, but even the successful ones could benefit from rejuvenation, said Campus East Principal Priscilla Hammond.

"We need to examine the programs and do a renewal," she said.

Federal Judge John T. Curtin said he is not opposed to replicating some of the successful magnet schools.

"If they wanted to open a school similar to the Waterfront academy on the West Side, well God bless them, it might be a wonderful thing," Curtin said.

Many of the neighborhood schools require more than just tinkering.

"The neighborhood schools-academy situation has to be addressed," Mrs. Wesolowski said.

As a first step, some educators feel the district should adopt a single set of strategies for them. There is presently little continuity.

Children in kindergarten, first and second grade are educated differently in early childhood centers and neighborhood elementary schools.

Likewise, academies and neighborhood elementary schools follow different strategies in educating pupils in grades 3-8.

"Let's find the things that work really well and use them across the board," said Marian Canedo, director of early childhood centers and academies.

Replicating the early childhood model in the neighborhood schools is a good place to start, said Carole Streiff, who monitors the district's compliance with the federal desegregation order for the plaintiffs.

Mrs. Streiff also advocates a common curriculum for grades 3-8. As it stands now, academies and neighborhood elementary schools often use different textbooks and course work, she said. Settling on a common approach for grades 3-8 would be especially helpful for the district's many transient pupils, who often get lost when they transfer between an academy and neighborhood school.

Mrs. Streiff and Mrs. Wesolowski also suggest providing programs for academically gifted students in a greater number of schools. Such programs are now limited to a handful of schools, most notably Frederick Law Olmsted.

Doing so, they said, would provide needed educational opportunities for bright children and make non-magnet schools more attractive to parents.

Buildings

The condition of city school buildings is a lot like Buffalo weather: Everyone talks about how miserable it is, but no one does anything about it.

The district is opening the Makowski Early Childhood Center on the East Side this fall and is developing plans for an academy in the Riverside-Black Rock area. Nothing beyond that is concrete.

Many of the city's 72 schools require renovation, if not replacement. Many are outdated, especially those built before the Depression, but remain structurally sound.

The worst are:

Grover Cleveland High School. The worst school building in the district.

Campus North. Weather beaten and over crowded. Construction of a new school could help stabilize the University Heights neighborhood.

Black Rock Academy, which dates to 1894.

Riverside Academy, which dates to 1897.

School 43, which dates to 1901.

Buffalo Academy of the Visual and Performing Arts. This 1912 building was renovated in the 1970s, but the program screams for modern facilities.

Alternative High School. Its main building on Oak Street is awful, as are many satellites.

Schools that cry out for major work, if not replacement, include Schools 56, 57, 61, 70 and 71. And Burgard High School, while as solid as a brick house, is as depressing as a funeral home.

"An infusion of new school buildings would pump a lot of enthusiasm into our system," Masiello said.

There are no comments - be the first to comment