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City schools chief sets ?graduation ?goal of 80%; Brown acknowledges ?objective is ‘aggressive'

Superintendent Pamela C. Brown says that five years from now, 80 percent of Buffalo's students should be graduating from high school – a goal she acknowledges is "aggressive."

That would mean increasing the city's graduation rate by nearly 30 percentage points in five years in a district where the graduation rate has long hovered around 50 percent – a feat that would be considered miraculous in urban education.

"It is an aggressive objective. I know that and I don't take it lightly," Brown said. "But where do we set it? Sixty percent five years from now? That isn't good enough for the children of Buffalo. That wouldn't be good enough for my child. That's not good enough for anybody else's child."

During an hourlong meeting with The Buffalo News editorial board Friday, Brown said she will emphasize data-driven decision-making to elevate Buffalo's results to meet the 80 percent level, which is the state standard for four-year graduation.

She drew on her experience as a central office administrator in Philadelphia to provide one example of how that might play out.

In Philadelphia, she said, the district identified all the seniors who were one or two credits short of the required number for graduation.

"We had our counselors get on the phone and call the parents of every one of those 1,300 students and tell them, ‘Your son or daughter needs just one or two credits to graduate. We are going to offer your child the opportunity to make up those credits in summer school,'?" she said.

About half of those students made up the credits they needed during summer school, she said, and most of those students graduated at the end of the summer.
"That's just an example of using data to drive the planning that you do – having access to the kind of data that you need to determine what the need is and then being able to strategize on how to meet it," she said.

The superintendent noted that the district's overall student performance is far below what it needs to be, with less than one-third of elementary and middle school students proficient in English and math.

She emphasized the need to change the culture of the district to one in which everyone believes that all children can succeed academically. She said she already has begun modeling that belief and instilling a sense of urgency in her staff regarding the need to improve student achievement.

Brown offered few specifics regarding exactly how she plans to dramatically improve student outcomes.

Her primary achievement toward that goal so far, she said, has involved making two changes in the central office. She filled a vacant community superintendent position by appointing former Bennett High School principal David Mauricio.

And she reconfigured central office staffing to create "academic support teams" – consisting of existing directors, supervisors, support teachers and other staff – designed to better serve the needs of the schools.

"Yes, we are utilizing the services of mostly the same people [who have been in the district for many years]," Brown said. "I believe leadership makes a difference. I believe doing the right kind of work with the right kind of focus and monitoring the impact of what you're doing makes a difference."

She said she wanted to have time to assess the leadership capacity of the existing central office staff before deciding whether to bring in her own people.

"I will take advantage of that authority to bring in my own people, to some extent, in the next couple of months," she said. "We have to make sure our children and our staff members are benefiting from the right kind of leadership."

Student attendance remains a major concern in the district, she said. The district in 2011-12 improved its attendance rate by 2.6 percentage points, to 89.3 percent; she plans to achieve a comparable increase again this year, she said.

Brown cited some ways to improve attendance, including: educating parents about the importance of their children attending school; making sure there is "high-quality instruction" in the classrooms; and providing incentives and recognition for good attendance. She said she is planning a citywide initiative to improve attendance, but did not provide specifics.

She has asked Say Yes to Education to fund a study to investigate the root causes of student absenteeism.

Many teachers have said they would like to see the district reinstitute a policy that required students to attend class at least 85 percent of the time to sit for a Regents exam or be promoted to the next grade.

Brown said that cutoff – which translates into missing no more than 28 days of school a year – would be too lenient. Chronic absenteeism is considered any number of absences beyond 18 days.

"If there were a cutoff point, I'm not sure it would be at the 28-day mark," she said, adding that she does not support having that type of policy. "I think about the student who might have missed 28 days but still mastered the skills and concepts for that grade level. For me, [having that type of attendance policy] would be more of a punitive action than one focused on doing what is best for the child."

The superintendent said she looks forward to having a positive relationship with the Buffalo Teachers Federation and its president, Philip Rumore. District officials have "initiated some talks about initiating contract negotiations again." The teachers contract expired in 2004.

The district is still deciding whether to appeal a judge's decision that said the district's decision to involuntarily transfer 54 teachers from failing schools violated the teachers contract, she said.

"We are in a difficult situation," she said. "We are bound by state and federal regulations to comply. At the same time, we have a collective bargaining agreement we have to adhere to. In this case, it's difficult or next to impossible to do both."

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