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Pinnacle Charter argues to stay open despite low test scores

Members of the Pinnacle Charter School board acknowledged Monday that the school's students have not performed well on state tests in the past few years but argued that the school should remain open another year.

The state Board of Regents is scheduled to vote today on whether to renew the school's charter, which expires in June. State Education Department staffers have recommended that the school be closed.

In a 51-page report to the Regents, Education Department staffers described the school's performance as "generally declining, being among the lowest in the state (well below state averages) and no better than other schools in Buffalo."

The school has implemented changes, the report noted, but "the possibility of future promise is insufficient to overcome the school's cumulative record of low academic achievement."

Pinnacle, at 115 Ash St., was identified by the state in November as being "in need of improvement," based on its failure to make adequate progress in English two years in a row, the report noted. The school serves students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

"Nobody's trying to diminish the importance of academic performance," said Steven H. Polowitz, an attorney representing the school. "We wouldn't be suggesting [renewing the charter] if there were even moderately acceptable alternatives for these kids, but there aren't. Most of these kids are going to end up in district schools that are failing, that are in far worse condition than [this school]."

District schools, on average, performed better on state tests last year than Pinnacle did.

Overall in 2010-11, only about 20 percent of Pinnacle's students in grades three through eight were considered proficient in math and English, according to the Education Department report. That compares with an average of about 30 percent of students in Buffalo Public Schools.

For the past three years, Pinnacle's scores on the English tests have consistently been lower than the district averages. That gap grew from 3 percentage points two years ago to 8 percentage points last year.

But the school had scored 8 percentage points higher in math than the district average for two years in a row. That changed last year, when 21 percent of Pinnacle students were considered proficient in math, compared with 32 percent of district students.

Pinnacle board members say that if the school closes, its students will have limited options for transfers. Other charter schools have already held their student placement lotteries for 2012-13, and the district has also already placed students in its schools.

"We have 560 students who are going to be turned out of what most people agree is a well-managed, good learning environment," said Stephen Phelps, a board member. "They're going to be turned out into what we know is a dysfunctional school system."

Phelps, Polowitz, board President Fenice Boyd, and public relations consultant Sharon Linstedt met with The Buffalo News Editorial Board on Monday to make the case that the Regents should give the school another year to improve.

They attributed some of last year's decline in scores to the departure of longtime chief academic officer Heidi Rotella in March 2011. Students were tested a few weeks later.

"In protest, some of the students decided they were purposely going to perform poorly," Boyd said.

Phelps said the board recognized the need to improve academic performance and last August hired Linda Marsalek as chief academic officer. The school is implementing a turnaround plan, he said, but its results will not be documented until the state releases results from tests taken last week and this week.

Internal test measures this year, board members said, have indicated there will be a marked improvement on the state tests.