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City schools under gun to improve, King says; District has 3 months to do turnaround plans

State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. offered some limited praise Wednesday for Buffalo's interim school superintendent but said the real test of Amber M. Dixon's month-old leadership lies in submitting acceptable turnaround plans for seven failing schools by Jan. 1.

Thirteen of Buffalo's schools -- nearly one in four -- have been designated as persistently lowest-achieving. In the next several weeks, more of the city's schools will receive the designation.

"That's a death sentence for the community -- a community can't survive with failing schools," King told The Buffalo News. "People ought to be outraged. People ought to be camping out in parks over the performance of their schools."

The district's failure to submit adequate turnaround plans for seven of its failing schools points to a lack of necessary knowledge and skills, both in the central office and in individual schools, he said.

Added to that, he said, is a "lack of political will on the part of the board, management and labor to do the things necessary" to turn the schools around.

"Ultimately, the adults create the climate for students to succeed or fail," King said in a meeting with News editors and reporters. "What's clear is there is not yet a working consensus among the adults of what it will take to create an environment where kids can succeed."

Members of the business and philanthropic community, along with others in the city, should be "loudly demanding" that labor and management work together toward improving outcomes for students, he said.

It's too early to tell whether Dixon will be able to bring together labor, management and the board effectively, he said.

"Obviously, Amber has a very warm and positive persona, and I think that's helpful. Obviously, she has good relationships with various constituencies in the community. I think that will be helpful," he said. "And it does seem like she has a positive working relationship with the board, which will also be helpful.

"But the real test will be student outcomes over time. The question will be: Can they put forward plans that work, that make sense for those schools?"

The leadership of the Buffalo Public Schools over the past two years struggled to win federal turnaround funds. In the summer of 2010, then-Superintendent James A. Williams refused to move three principals, a move that disqualified schools from extra funding.

He eventually relented, and four schools received funding partway through 2010-11. This summer, seven more failing schools were eligible for turnaround funds.

The School Board opted not to submit turnaround plans for four schools. For three others, it decided to hire outside groups to help run them. But the state rejected those plans, saying the district seemed ill-equipped to work with outside groups.

"The poor quality of the school improvement plans points to a real capacity issue in the district," King said. "It's clear that last year, [the district's] ability to execute effective plans was undermined by a general lack of leadership coherence, with the conflicts between the board and the superintendent and the uncertain future of the superintendent."

Buffalo has until Jan. 1 to submit revised turnaround plans for the seven failing schools that have not received turnaround funds. Each school was eligible for up to $2 million in federal grant funds this year, but none received money.

King warned Wednesday -- as he has in previous interviews -- that the stakes are high.

He is especially focused on Lafayette High School, which was eligible for turnaround funds this year and last year but did not qualify either time. If Buffalo fails to submit an acceptable plan for Lafayette by Jan. 1, the commissioner says he will revoke the school's registration and recommend that the Board of Regents close it.

If that happens, the 700 or so students -- the majority of them not native English speakers -- would be reassigned to other schools in the city.

In the next few weeks, state officials will visit the low-performing schools in Buffalo that received federal turnaround funds.

"The question we'll be asking is: Have the schools changed? Are students getting a different learning experience?" he said.

King plans to appoint a "distinguished educator" to Buffalo in the next few weeks, in part to help the district put together turnaround plans. Time, though, is running short. Less than 2 1/2 months remain for administrators to craft successful plans.

The commissioner was in Buffalo on Wednesday, accompanied by Regent Robert M. Bennett, to meet with leaders in the business and philanthropic community. In the morning, he visited the Health Sciences Charter School.

"It's an impressive example of community health care providers partnering with the school to make sure students are getting not only a rich educational experience, but one that will prepare them for jobs that actually exist in the 21st century in an area where demand exists for qualified employees," he said.