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Several city schools face 'radical intervention' ; State education chief discusses new strategies

Radical changes are in store for several Buffalo schools.

Because so many city schools have landed on the state's watch list, several schools are headed for big changes as soon as September, including: getting rid of at least half the staff, conversion to charter schools or closing altogether.

To qualify for up to $6 million for each of its "persistently lowest-achieving schools," the district will have to choose one of those options for at least seven schools, under federal rules.

In an hourlong meeting with The Buffalo News Editorial Board, State Education Commissioner David M. Steiner and Regent Robert M. Bennett discussed several issues, including that looming choice for Buffalo. They also talked about the district's relationship with charter schools and the possibility of putting struggling districts into state receivership.

Buffalo has until the end of April to decide which of the three turnaround options it will pick for each school.

"Each of the three [options] requires radical intervention," Steiner said. "The federal government has really structured this so that the interventions will be real. I think there's a certain amount of weariness on the part of the feds, which I understand, when they look at the history of intervening in low-performing schools and see a lot of cosmetic changes."

Four Buffalo schools have received federal turnaround funds using a fourth option, the "transformation model," which requires removal of any principal who has been in place longer than two years. Superintendent James A. Williams for months last year refused to move the principals but eventually agreed -- grudgingly -- once it became apparent that he would jeopardize up to $42 million for the district unless he relented.

But federal rules will allow the district to use that option, the least radical of the four, for only two more schools.

The city, though, has nine schools now on the watch list.

"That will, I hope, press Buffalo to think aggressively about which models it wants to embrace," Steiner said.

The nine schools on the watch list include six that were identified in December: Buffalo Elementary School of Technology, Bilingual Center School 33, Futures Academy, Dr. Charles Drew Science Magnet at the Buffalo Museum of Science, Waterfront School and East High School.

Three others were identified a year ago but failed to file acceptable turnaround plans and therefore have not yet qualified for federal funds: Lafayette High School, Burgard High School and Riverside Institute of Technology.

The district has until the end of April to file turnaround plans with the state, in the hopes of qualifying for up to $6 million per school.

Bennett, the former Regents chancellor, made clear that he thinks Buffalo should convert some of its schools into charters.

"Buffalo's population is declining, and the performance hasn't improved very much over the years. So I think charter schools ought to be an option for them that they take seriously," he said.

"I don't think they've done that yet. As a matter of fact, [Buffalo Public Schools'] treatment of the issue has been that they're essentially against charter schools. Mostly what you hear [from the district] is that charter schools are costing us money -- when, in fact, what they could do is sit down and figure out a way to work with charter schools, to convert some more charter schools and have the best of all possible worlds."

Steiner, though, sought more of a middle ground.

"We want good schools for kids -- whether they're regular public, charter, whatever they may be. I don't think it's helpful for the state Education Department to micromanage in every neighborhood what that process might look like," he said.

Some charter schools produce remarkable results, he said, while others do so poorly that the state has to shut them down. The key variable is "the caliber of the folks putting the programs together," he said.

"What's a little bit concerning is that we see a kind of bimodal distribution of charter schools. We see groups of very strong charter schools that have strong networks, really great data systems, fantastic attention to first-year, second-year teachers," Steiner said.

"Then we have another group of charter schools that are sort of trying the idea of the day. And we have to bring closure to those schools where necessary. So it can work very, very strongly, and sometimes it doesn't."

The commissioner noted that the Board of Regents is considering a proposal that would allow the state to intervene in a district "that is almost beyond repair."

"If the Legislature and the governor would approve it, the state would step in and basically take over the district for a period of three to five years," he said.

The Board of Regents supported such a proposal last year but failed to get legislative support for it, he said. Steiner acknowledged such a proposal is likely to face opposition, given that it interferes with the democratic process by which voters elect their school board.

Bennett said it's unlikely the Regents will be able to advance the proposal this year.

"But the board continues to be very interested in the possibility of intervention where a particular school board is clearly failing its kids," Steiner said.

Is the Buffalo Board of Education "clearly failing its kids"?

"That wouldn't be for me to say," the commissioner replied.

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