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2 superintendent finalists make their cases Newsome, Dixon first to highlight credentials

Two of the three finalists for Buffalo school superintendent met with reporters and various groups in the district Thursday, highlighting what they see as their strengths.

Edward Newsome Jr. cited overall results in the Maryland school districts where he has worked, such as graduation rates that are significantly higher than Buffalo's.

Amber M. Dixon pointed to her commitment to her hometown and her intimate knowledge of a complex school district, citing progress working with unions in her last several months as interim superintendent.

The third finalist, Pamela Brown, a former assistant superintendent for the Philadelphia schools, had a family emergency and was not able to come to Buffalo this week. She will be in the area as soon as she can, district officials said.

During half-hour interviews with reporters, Newsome and Dixon tried to make the case for why the School Board should appoint them.

Newsome, 63, pointed to a four-year graduation rate above 80 percent in Baltimore County, where for the last year he has served as an assistant superintendent, and Montgomery County, where he worked for many years, most recently as director of school performance.

"All students of all backgrounds were able to achieve at high levels," he said of the two districts.

Baltimore County has a four-year graduation rate of 82 percent, Maryland data shows, compared with 47 percent in Buffalo. And Montgomery County graduates 86 percent of its students in four years.

Those districts, Newsome noted, encompass rural, suburban and urban areas. Buffalo is entirely urban.

A review of student demographic data in Maryland shows that 45 percent of students in Baltimore County receive free or reduced-price lunch, and only 32 percent do in Montgomery County. In Buffalo, though, 79 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Newsome, like Dixon, said student achievement is the greatest challenge facing the Buffalo Public Schools.

In response to questions about how he would plan to deal with the Buffalo Teachers Federation, Newsome said he would seek a collaborative approach and start by finding common ground for the district as well as the union.

He declined to say whether he believes that the performance of all students, regardless of attendance, should be counted toward a teacher's evaluation.

Newsome said Buffalo is the only district where he has applied for the position of superintendent. "Buffalo's characteristics for the school system align very well with my skill set," he said. "There's potential for great hope."

Newsome's jobs over 38 years in public education include kindergarten teacher; principal at elementary, middle school and high school levels; and adjunct instructor at the university level.

He holds a doctorate in educational leadership from Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a master's of education from Bowie State University in Maryland and a bachelor's of early childhood education from Elizabeth State University in North Carolina.

Dixon, 58, said she wants to become superintendent on a permanent basis because "it's work that needs to be done" for the future of the city.

During her eight months as interim superintendent, the district and its teachers union have made great strides toward reaching a teacher-evaluation agreement, she said, and Buffalo in the fall settled a contract with its clerical workers.

"We've achieved a lot of progress in respect to teacher evaluations," she said. "We have managed to do that without alienating the leadership of the union. Part of it is letting teachers know they're the professionals in front of the classroom."

District administrators this week finished the second day of meetings with two dozen teachers in an effort to reach an agreement on the evaluations for 2011-12 and recoup $5.6 million in federal aid.

"Change is not coming quickly to Buffalo. We don't quickly undo what was done over time," Dixon said. "The nuances of how we change in Buffalo are nuances I've become aware of."

If she becomes permanent superintendent, she said, she would begin by reviewing student data this summer and putting together a strategic plan for improving student achievement.

Data has helped the district identify how particular students have not always been adequately served, she said.

Dixon, for the first time, took a clear position on student attendance and teacher evaluations.

"I think the performance of all students should be counted toward a teacher's evaluation. Absolutely. Unequivocally," she said.

Dixon spent nine years as a math teacher in the district before becoming supervisor of schoolwide programs and accountability, a position she held until 2005. Since then, she has been promoted four times -- most recently, becoming interim superintendent in September 2011, when James A. Williams resigned.

She holds a master's degree in math education from the University at Buffalo and a bachelor's degree in elementary education from Medaille College.