Something is happening. The ground is shifting under the Buffalo Public Schools in ways that may benefit generations of students, families and the entire Western New York economy. Opportunities are appearing that almost guarantee improvement if the stakeholders in the school district are ready to make the necessary changes.
They need to be. The changing landscape is opening a path to opportunities that may never appear again if the city's leaders squander this moment.
Here is what is happening in Buffalo:
*Most powerfully, the school district is forming a partnership with Say Yes to Education, a private foundation with a record of improving educational outcomes. Through local fundraising, Say Yes and its local supporters hope to guarantee for 20 years college tuition to all Buffalo students who graduate from high school. That's a game-changer; a magnificent project whose benefits will roll through generations of students.
*Buffalo is also one of only five communities to secure a grant from Promise Neighborhood, a program that is patterned after the successful Harlem Children's Zone. The $6 million federal grant will be used to improve services in the neighborhood that encompasses Westminster Community Charter, Highgate Heights Elementary and Bennett High schools. Better yet, it will be leveraged by an additional $14.6 million in investments from M&T Bank to improve services such as early childhood literacy, health care and housing in the low-income ZIP code area of 14215.
*The school district is in the process of looking for a new superintendent to succeed James A. Williams, who was pushed into retirement in September. In Syracuse, Say Yes to Education played a lead role in recruiting a dynamic superintendent who hadn't even planned on applying. Such is the transformational potential of Say Yes. When people know dynamic changes are in the works, they want to be a part of them.
*The district (again) is in the process of drawing up and submitting turnaround plans for its seven persistently low-achieving schools. If it produces plans that are acceptable to the State Education Department, the district will be able to secure $42 million in federal funding.
This potential for dramatic improvement -- particularly through the partnership with Say Yes -- is possible only because the School Board finally pushed Williams out the door. The foundation's model for change requires buy-in from all stakeholders -- from the School Board to the school unions -- and that could not have occurred under Williams' bullying leadership style. The School Board deserves credit for finally seeing that it had to act.
As it stands, the leaders of Say Yes believe they have that buy-in. Indeed, they say that the enthusiasm they found in Buffalo was key to their decision to select this city from many that knocked on its door. Buffalo is fortunate in that regard, but to a great extent -- and utterly unpredicted by its history -- it helped to make its own luck.
The editorial page series, Crisis in Our Schools, that ran in this space over the last week noted that one of the components of the dramatic improvement in the Columbus, Ohio, school district was its partnership with the Panasonic Foundation. With the arrival in Buffalo of Say Yes, some of the dynamics that produced results in Columbus could be replicated here.
Altogether, these developments make this a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the Buffalo School District. Changes won't happen overnight and they won't happen without discomfort on all sides -- sometimes significant discomfort. There will be rough times, but that is the path to better education for Buffalo's 37,000 students. Surely, it is worth the journey.