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Buffalo plans to move 200 teachers; Reassigning from worst schools raises concerns

More than 200 teachers in the Buffalo Public Schools must be removed from seven of the district's lowest-performing schools before September and reassigned to other schools, under federal rules for a school reform plan chosen by district officials.

The unprecedented large-scale reassignment of teachers -- often compared to a major game of musical chairs -- has many people worried about how it will play out.

"It's going to be a mess," said Board of Education member John Licata.

Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, said newer teachers at higher-performing schools cannot get bumped by the displaced teachers.

"They can't bump teachers out of their schools. It's in our contract," he said. "Why would you want to disrupt a building like that where a teacher's doing a good job? That's the whole insanity of this."

But that doesn't allay all the fears.

District officials say the displaced teachers at the low-performing schools will be put on an "involuntary transfer" list. When teaching positions open in other buildings -- through retirements, resignations or any other means -- those teachers will get first crack at the positions, based on their seniority.

The Board of Education this week approved a retirement incentive it hopes will help create enough openings for the displaced teachers to fill.

But parents at higher-performing schools in the district are worried that teachers from the low-performing schools will end up filling positions in their buildings that otherwise would have been filled with new hires.

For example, if a math teacher at City Honors retires, in any other year, a building committee would interview applicants and choose one, parents say. But this year, the position would likely be filled by a teacher who had been displaced from a low-performing school.

"Parents are very, very nervous that it's going to be a highly destructive process across the district, disruptive to all the schools that are meeting standards," said David Cohen, an active City Honors parent who has become a parent spokesman on this issue.

Principals at the seven low-performing schools also must be replaced, but they must be replaced by principals who either work at a higher-performing school or have a track record of successfully turning around a failing school.

There are almost two dozen principals in the district who meet the criteria. So far, only one of them has volunteered to take on a low-performing school.

The principals' contract -- unlike the teachers' contract -- allows the district to assign principals to any school, regardless of whether the principal has chosen to go there.

At a public meeting this week, Mark W. Frazier, lead community superintendent, said the district will not be hiring any outside principals this year. During the same meeting, Superintendent James A. Williams vowed he would not forcibly move principals out of higher-performing schools.

"I can't see tearing up the school system," he said. "My conscience would not allow me to do that to the parents in a school that's doing well."

Because the seven schools are among Buffalo schools that have been designated by the state as persistently lowest-performing, the district must choose one of four federal models for dealing with them. Buffalo has chosen the model that requires replacing the principal and at least half the staff in each of the schools.

District officials say that model -- known as the "turnaround model" -- made the most sense, based on input from joint intervention teams that reviewed the schools.

"One recommendation said that unless there were structural changes in these schools that affected teachers and administrators, they did not believe these schools could be changed," said Deputy Superintendent Folasade Oladele. "So we chose the turnaround model."

The district has until April 30 to file plans with the state Education Department for nine of its persistently lowest-achieving schools. The district is eligible for up to $2 million a year for three years for each of the schools if it submits acceptable turnaround plans.

Under federal guidelines, the district must choose from these options: close the school; turn it into a charter school or turn it over to a charter management group or an educational partnership group to run; or replace the principal and at least half the teachers.

The district has opted for the last option for the following schools: Burgard and East high schools, Riverside Institute of Technology, Buffalo Elementary School of Technology, Bilingual Center School 33, Futures Academy and Waterfront School.

The district has chosen other options for two other low-performing schools: Lafayette High School will be closed, and the International Prep program currently housed at Grover Cleveland High School will move into the Lafayette building.

The Dr. Charles Drew Science Magnet at the Buffalo Museum of Science will adopt what is known as the transformation model, generally considered a less-drastic option. The district is allowed to use this model for a limited number of schools.

Last week, district officials began meeting with teachers at the seven low-performing schools to tell them that at least half of the staff in each building has to be replaced.

Teachers were given two days to decide whether they would like to apply to keep their jobs.

Those who opt to apply to keep their jobs will have to present a 15-minute model lesson to their principal and a district administrator as part of the screening process that begins next week.

Teachers in the low-performing schools say district officials seem to be unfairly blaming them for their schools' performance, without taking into account factors such as student poverty and the issues it brings.

For example, in some of the low-performing schools, more than one out of four students receives special-education services.

In many of the struggling schools, student attendance tends to be very low. In one school, during a recent two-week period, for instance, attendance ranged from a low of more than 25 percent of students absent on a given day to as many as 55 percent absent on another day.

One teacher at a low-performing school said a City Hall administrator told the staff that anyone who wants to keep their job must be willing to commit to "12- to 14-hour days."

"She said if we want to be agents of change, we have to step up," said the teacher, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It was insulting. She implied we don't work hard enough.

"I've never felt as betrayed by the district as I do this time. Now we're not good enough."

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