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Accord aims to improve 16 schools

In what is being hailed as a pivotal display of cooperation, longtime antagonists James A. Williams and Philip Rumore have agreed on a sweeping $8 million plan to boost student achievement in the city's 16 lowest-performing schools.

Teachers at those schools today will watch a video in which Williams, the Buffalo school superintendent, and Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, sit side by side and explain the reform effort. It will lengthen both the school day and school year, lower class sizes, stagger work schedules and provide coaches for both teachers and principals.

"This is huge," said Amber Dixon, the school system's executive director for project initiatives. "We were able to do this by working with the BTF. The process has been extremely collegial."

Will the agreement lead to improved relations on a broader scale between the school system and its largest and most influential union?

"I think it already has," Dixon said.

Rumore said the plan resulted from "an excellent working relationship" between the teachers union and an administrative team headed by Dixon.

"There seemed to be a lot more willingness on the part of the district to listen to our concerns," he said. "We started out from completely different ends of the stratosphere. We heard each other out and reached an agreement."

No one suggests that the accord puts a sudden end to the often tumultuous relationship between the schools and the teachers union or the friction between Williams and Rumore.

They remain locked in a high-stakes legal battle over single-carrier health insurance, and another court fight is looming over how many step pay increases teachers are entitled to receive as a result of the recent lifting of the wage freeze.

But both sides hold out hope that the agreement will pave the way for greater cooperation and trust, and they describe the reform plan as a landmark in itself.

The agreement lays out the framework for using a state "Contract for Excellence" grant to improve student performance at 13 elementary schools and three high schools that are on a state watch list because of poor test scores.

Although many details remain to be worked out, these are the broad features of the plan:

*An hour will be added to the school day, and four summer weeks will be tacked on to the school year.

*Teacher hours will be staggered to cover the longer day. Some teachers would work from roughly 7:55 a.m. to 2:35 p.m., while others would be on duty from 8:55 a.m. to 3:35 p.m.

*Class sizes will be limited to 20 in kindergarten through third grade and to 25 in grades four through 12.

*"Instructional coaches" will work with teachers; "leadership coaches" will assist principals.

*Five days of professional development will be provided for both teachers and administrators.

*More feedback will be provided to parents, who can transfer their students to other city schools if they aren't comfortable with the longer school day and school year.

School districts are required to consult with teachers over use of Contract for Excellence funds in 2007-08, and state regulations give teachers unions broader sign-off power in later years, Rumore said.

But Dixon said the cooperative approach was based not on regulations, but on the realization that the plan's success relies on the support of teachers.

The schools are:

Buffalo Elementary School of Technology, 414 South Division St.; Dr. Antonia Pantoja Community School of Academic Excellence, 118 Hampshire St.; Native American Magnet School, 97 W. Delavan Ave.; Harriet Ross Tubman School 31, 212 Stanton St.; Futures Academy, 295 Carlton St.; Community School 53, 329 Roehrer Ave.; Early Childhood Center School 61, 453 Leroy Ave.; and Hamlin Park School 74, 126 Donaldson Road.

Also, Herman Badillo Bilingual Academy, 300 S. Elmwood Ave.; Pfc. William J. Grabiarz School of Excellence, 225 Lawn Ave.; Harvey Austin School, 1405 Sycamore St.; West Hertel Academy, 489 Hertel Ave.; Grover Cleveland High School, 110 14th St.; South Park High School, 150 Southside Parkway; and Burgard Vocational High School, 400 Kensington Ave.

e-mail: psimon@buffnews.com

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