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2 failing city schools proposed for charters; District officials angry at being left out
of plan involving East and Waterfront

Some of the founders of Tapestry Charter School are spearheading an effort to turn East High School and Waterfront School, both deemed persistently low achieving, into charter schools – a proposal that seems to have riled district administrators and School Board members.

A group this week submitted letters of intent to the state Education Department that outline plans to close both schools in their present form in June 2013, then reopen them in September 2013 as charter schools.

It's fairly common for various groups to propose opening charter schools in Buffalo; the state gets a few such applications a year.

What makes this situation unusual is that it involves turning two existing district schools into charter schools, rather than starting a new charter school from scratch – and this plan is being advanced by an outside group, rather than the district.

The effort is being led by Amy Friedman and Steven Polowitz, two of the co-founders of Tapestry; and Emilio Fuentes, whose three children attended district schools.

"Our point is that the district has 15,000-plus kids attending failing schools, and they don't have any capacity to provide decent educational alternatives to them, should their parents demand them," said Polowitz, who is an attorney.

Those involved in the effort note that about half the ninth-graders at East in any given year don't return for tenth grade, state data shows.

"How can we let this keep going on? These kids need us to do something radically different, and we keep doing the same thing," said Lynn Seagren Bass, principal of Tapestry Charter High School and one of the people involved in the efforts at East and Waterfront.

Under the state's law governing charter schools, admission to charter schools has to be based on a random lottery. But because the proposed closure and reopening of the schools would be part of improvement plans under federal guidelines, students currently enrolled at the schools would be given preference in admissions, he said.

The preliminary papers filed with the state identify several partners to work with the schools, including Erie 1 BOCES at both schools and Buffalo Hearing and Speech at Waterfront. The deadline for a full application is July 18.

Johns Hopkins University is not identified as a partner, but the plans call for using the university's model for school turnarounds.

In May, the state approved a district plan for East that involves hiring Johns Hopkins University to run the school, starting in September 2012. That plan is contingent upon the district submitting by Sunday a teacher evaluation plan for 2012-13 that the union agrees to – something that has not yet happened. Johns Hopkins has said it is not prepared to step in to run the school for September, but would consider an altered schedule; it's not clear whether the state would agree to that.

The state in May rejected the district's plan for improving Waterfront. That plan involved hiring Canisius College to run the school. State officials have given the district until Dec. 31 to submit an acceptable plan for Waterfront, or the school's registration will be revoked.

Waterfront Principal David Hills points out that his school must select one of three available models: reopen as a charter, hire an outside group to run it, or replace half the teachers. He says he is open to any of those options.

"If it's good for the community, good for the district and good for the families at Waterfront, I'll support it. But it's too early for me to put my money on this horse. I couldn't rule it out either," he said. "Ultimately I'm an agent of the board and the district, and I'll do whatever they want me to do."

East Principal Casey Young did not respond to a request to comment.

The School Board president and the interim superintendent both say they are open to the idea of turning low-performing schools into charters but don't like the way proponents of the Waterfront and East charter plans handled the situation.

Interim Superintendent Amber M. Dixon said she had not been consulted.

"This is the Buffalo public school system. It has to maintain itself as a strong Buffalo public school system, and it has to partner with other entities and agencies creatively and willingly, but as a strong system," Dixon said. "So it can't just lay there passively and let people pluck away two schools and make them charters."

Polowitz acknowledged that Dixon had not been consulted but said he and others working on the proposal met two weeks ago with School Board President Louis J. Petrucci.

"We thought the appropriate person to speak with was Lou, the board president," Polowitz said. "It was shared with him specifically because we wanted to avoid a situation where we did this without letting him know. We're not trying to blindside anybody."

Petrucci said he did not believe there would be support on the board for the proposal and said he does not plan to present it to the full board. He said he felt the group behind the charter proposal failed to inform or involve the district adequately in its planning process.

"To remove the district from the whole process with State Ed is effectively an end run," he said.

In the papers that were filed with the Education Department this week, Polowitz notes that the board would need to agree to close and then reopen the schools as charters. "Failing that, then we propose the [schools' registrations] be revoked by the New York State Education Department," he wrote.

Petrucci took exception to that.

"That's where it steps over the line," Petrucci said. "It really needs to be in conjunction or in partnership with the district."