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Steady progress is possible Gains at South Park High School show improvements can be made

Do principals matter? Anyone who doubts it has not spent 30 seconds or so with Theresa Schuta, the gale-force leader who is making waves at South Park High School, one of the seven Buffalo schools identified by the state as persistently low-achieving.

Through passion, force of personality, sheer determination and -- perhaps most critically -- devotion to teamwork, Schuta is making a difference in the long-term prospects of South Park's 1,100 students and, as a consequence, in those of the school's neighborhood, as well. There are some special circumstances in Schuta's story that may give her and her school an advantage, but none that can't be replicated in other schools by the right people. Bottom line: If South Park High School can improve, so can every other school in Buffalo. Principals set the tone; teachers will follow their lead.

Just as schools have created teacher-coaches to mentor teachers -- more on that below -- the district should consider doing something similar with principals.

Here's a snapshot of what is happening in Schuta's school: Before she arrived there in 2009, the graduation rate was 33 percent, though part of that abysmally low figure may have been the result of data error, she said. Nevertheless, the school's graduation rate a year later rose to 47 percent and, when the numbers come in, she expects to see the 2011 rate reach 57 percent. "It's very substantial for a persistently low-achieving school," she said.

A 57 percent graduation rate won't win the school any Best in Class honors, but it would put it in the running for Most Improved. And, state standards notwithstanding, improvement is really what it is about, especially for the district's persistently low-achieving schools. Goals and standards are critical, but when schools are falling far short, progress is the watchword.

No underperforming school goes from terrible to terrific in a year or even two. There is no leaping tall buildings in a single bound in human or educational reality. But there can be progress -- steady, notable, documentable improvement. That's what has occurred at South Park and there is no reason to think it can't continue.

Schuta is certainly planning on it. Here are some of the things she has done to produce improvement at her school:

* She and her team were "very honest and open" when Donald A. Ogilvie, Erie 1 BOCES superintendent, reviewed the school. "We knew that things had to change," she said.

* She provided additional professional development for South Park's teachers.

* The school began to incorporate the results of student assessments into teaching, putting reams of data to focused and productive use.

* As in other district schools, she created a staff of instructional coaches -- teachers who are paid teacher salaries -- to help bolster the performance of the entire instructional staff.

* She makes sure teachers get feedback through a nonconfrontational approach, conducting a "preconference" with teachers, then observing them in the classrooms, then holding a postconference.

* She insists on discipline. That resulted in a number of student suspensions early on, she acknowledged, but it paid off. "In the beginning, you have to set the tone and let the kids know -- and then, it kind of evens out The kids know there are rules."

* As part of that effort, she insisted that school start on time. South Park adopted a program by Safe & Civil Schools, an organization aimed at creating emotionally and physically safe environments for learning. In the summer of 2010, it noted that the first week the program was implemented, student tardiness was reduced by a startling 94 percent, and the rate has remained much lower than before, despite cuts in staff, Schuta said.

Remember, this is one of Buffalo's persistently low-achieving schools. Improvement is, thus, not only possible but, plainly, failure to produce it is inexcusable.

Schuta is, in some ways, unique. She grew up in the neighborhood, graduating from South Park in 1978. She has lived her entire life within a 10-block area of South Buffalo. Before she was principal at South Park, she spent seven years as principal at South Side Elementary School.

"I prefer to contribute to the quality of life where I live," she said. "I knew there was a challenge here. I volunteered to come to South Park High School."

Schuta's passion for her school and her neighborhood appears to be South Park's great advantage, but she also hasn't done anything that any other principal could not do. "A teacher has to be a risk-taker," she said. "You have to be an instigator, and I guess I'm one. I just tell the truth."

The challenge for the Buffalo School Board and Acting Superintendent Amber M. Dixon will be to empower all of the district's principals to move swiftly and surely to bring order and education to their schools.

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Fourth of six editorials. Tomorrow: The teachers union

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