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Parents win support for meeting on school woes; City leaders, churches applaud call to action

Across Buffalo, churches and community organizations are throwing their support behind a parent group's call to convene meetings and stage protests, if need be, to draw attention to problems in the city schools.

City officials also support parents' demands for better educational results.

So do state legislators.

"I'm more excited than I've ever been in my entire life regarding the education of Buffalo students," said Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes. "I don't think anything can turn around the conditions of Buffalo students other than organized parents."

Frustration among parents has been simmering for quite some time.

Two out of three elementary students in the Buffalo Public Schools are reading below grade level. Nearly half the students in the district never graduate from high school. And among black males, three out of four never graduate.

The tipping point came in February, when Superintendent James A. Williams pointed his finger at public education as a whole.

"Public education was never designed to educate black people," he said. "It's still not. And I look at New York State. New York State is structured to force kids to drop out of school."

That was enough to mobilize parents.

Two weeks ago, the District Parent Coordinating Council -- composed of parent representatives from every school in the city -- voted unanimously to call a meeting May 3 of local and state decision-makers to talk about ways to fix the structural problems in Buffalo schools.

If the meeting does not produce results, parents said, they are prepared to stage protests -- including keeping children home from school on May 16 -- to draw attention to the need for better results, until state and local officials begin putting together plans for immediate, concrete changes.

Mayor Byron W. Brown and many Common Council members immediately voiced their support for the parent group.

The superintendent, on the other hand, called parent leaders immediately to let them know he was not happy.

"He was extremely upset," said Samuel Radford III, vice president of the parent group. "He wanted to meet with us the next day. But nothing he was going to say was going to change our minds."

Radford says that if Williams is right, and structural problems at the state level are causing widespread failure in the Buffalo schools, then it makes sense for the parents to ask state Education Department officials to come talk about solutions.

"If his position is true, and it's based on data and it's based on research, then he should have no problem with us asking State Ed to come down and talk to us," Radford said. "How could it be a problem, us asking State Ed to come down and address structural problems? Unless he's lying."

In an interview last week, Williams criticized the parent group for threatening to keep children home from school as a way to draw attention to the problems in the schools.

Asked to explain how the educational system is set up to fail minority students, Williams said by the time those students begin school, most of them are already behind their peers. He called for mandatory prekindergarten and kindergarten, which he said would help students in poverty get up to speed with other students their age.

He called for expanded opportunities for vocational education.

"I would love to see the expansion of career and technical education," he said. "Every child should not be required to pass six Regents exams."

Williams also called for reforms that would help the district cut costs on employee health care and pensions, so that the city schools could use those savings to institute a longer school day and a longer school year.

"The poorest and neediest kids need to be in school more than 182 days," he said.

The District Parent Coordinating Council has prepared its own list of proposed changes, many of which draw on ideas from neighboring suburban schools, including keeping schools open in the evenings to give children a safe place to participate in activities, and making the Buffalo Public Schools budget contingent upon voter approval.

The parent group also is calling for a state-appointed educational stability authority to oversee the Board of Education. Parents would like such a group to have the ability to override union contracts in situations where contract provisions impede student achievement.

Parents also are calling for, among other things, greater mayoral influence over the schools and the reinstatement of the employee residency requirement, which the Board of Education rescinded in March.

The parent group has sent letters, with return receipt requested, to more than two dozen officials about the May 3 meeting. Recipients include the state education commissioner, the local representative on the Board of Regents, the superintendent, the mayor, state legislators, Common Council members and Board of Education members.

Many, including elected city officials and Board of Education members, already have pledged to attend the meeting. The State Legislature will be in session but many legislators have said they will send representatives.

Robert Bennett, who represents the Buffalo area on the state Board of Regents, also will attend.

"Is State Ed paying attention? Very much so," he said. "Parents mobilizing -- I love it. I can't imagine anything being so influential as a parent that cares about their child's education. I think it's wonderful."

What if the May 3 meeting does not produce the tangible results parents are looking for?

Parents are ready to stage protests to draw attention to the problems in the district. Those protests could take a variety of forms, including prayer vigils, fasts and marches on City Hall. The option getting the most attention, though, is a possible boycott of city schools on May 16, a half-day of school.

Council member Darius Pridgen, pastor of True Bethel Baptist Church, one of the largest churches in Buffalo, has offered to open True Bethel's three sites that day and staff them with adults to provide students with a place to go and work on their school lessons.

Other churches also have offered to provide space for children that day.

"If it's necessary to keep kids out of school, we're going to make sure we have things available for our kids. In terms of churches, we know we would have at least 24 of them. That's from the East Side to the West Side," said George Johnson, president of Buffalo United Front, a group of churches.

Every day, more churches and community groups step forward to support the parents' demands for better schools, Radford said. Included in that mix are a number of well-known community leaders, including former Council member Charley Fisher and Community Action Organization President L. Nathan Hare.

"What I really like about Sam [Radford]'s approach and the District Parent Coordinating Council's approach is that they're not looking for a scapegoat, for someone to blame. They're saying, 'These are the things we believe will help our kids -- who's willing to sit down and talk to us about what should happen here?' " said Lisa Crapnell, chair of the education task force for VOICE Buffalo, a social justice group of more than 20 churches..

"It's, 'Who's willing to work together to educate these kids?' I like that approach. That's how things get done."

e-mail: mpasciak@buffnews.com

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