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Funds for 4 failing Buffalo schools reaping little

The $19.1 million in federal money that Buffalo has spent over the last three years at four failing schools has yielded disappointing results, State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. said Wednesday.

The federal grants for the four Buffalo schools – South Park and Bennett high schools, Martin Luther King Jr. Multicultural Institute and International School 45 – were intended to dramatically improve student achievement on a tight time frame, and the grants are now in their third and final year. But not much improvement has been seen, the commissioner told Buffalo News editors and reporters.

“We have not seen the returns on investment for the school improvement grant program that we had hoped for,” King said. “There are places where there are modest signs of progress. There are other places where the district is not on the [right] trajectory.”

Federal grants also went to failing schools across the state, and the statewide results also are disappointing, he said.

But the results in Buffalo seem even more dire than in most, King said.

A progress report last winter from Judy L. Elliott, the distinguished educator whom King appointed to work with the Buffalo schools, confirmed what he had been told by state Education Department representatives who have conducted site visits in the grant-funded low-performing schools, he said. “I am worried that the promises that were made in the school improvement grant applications are not being fulfilled,” King said. “Dr. Elliott’s description raises questions.”

He attributed some of the lackluster results – here and elsewhere – to delays in implementing a new teacher and principal evaluation system.

In 2010-11, the first year that school improvement grants were awarded in New York, many of the schools receiving them adopted a reform model known as “transformation,” an approach that requires implementation of the new evaluations, which incorporate student growth on tests as part of the measure of a teacher’s effectiveness.

A 2010 state law required schools to adopt the new evaluations, but it carried no consequences for noncompliance. Schools largely ignored the requirement until 2012, when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo put forward a law that made each district’s annual state aid increase contingent on implementation of the new evaluations.

Now all but a few of the state’s nearly 700 school districts have a new evaluation plan in place. The commissioner predicted that as a result, schools will soon begin to see measurable improvements.

Many teachers fear that the evaluations will be used to terminate teachers’ employment; King and other proponents of evaluations say they will be used primarily to identify teachers who are struggling and provide them with support. Under the state law, two consecutive years of “ineffective” ratings can trigger job-termination proceedings for a teacher. “The evaluation system has taken some time to launch as the result of disagreements over stakeholders,” King said, referring to clashes between union leaders, and state and district officials over the evaluations.

“Thanks to the governor’s leadership, we’ve had a change in state law, and I think we will begin to see the results of improvement in our evaluation system.”

King predicted that schools that were included in more recent rounds of federal improvement grants will be likely to see better results, now that the evaluations are fully in place.

South Park, Bennett, MLK and International School 45 received the most funding in 2010-11 – a total of $7.9 million among the four schools – with the amount declining each year. This year, the four received a total of $4.6 million.

Buffalo Public Schools officials have forecast a $51 million deficit for 2013-14. Among numerous issues contributing to the deficit, district officials have noted that the federal funding for the four schools will dry up after this year.

“The school improvement grant program was not intended to be a permanent funding source,” King said. “It was intended to build capacity. If the money was invested well, the programs that worked should be made a priority in the district budget.”

Nearly half of Buffalo’s schools have been dubbed “priority” schools, the latest bureaucratic label for the 5 percent lowest-achieving schools in the state. Another one-fourth of the district’s schools are considered “focus” schools, meaning they are in danger of becoming priority schools.

King reiterated his often-stated frustration with Buffalo’s schools and said that the state has limited recourse. The state does have the authority to revoke a school’s registration – a move that would effectively force its closure – but has never resorted to such a drastic measure.

In the last few years, King had threatened to revoke Lafayette High School’s registration. Wednesday, he said that if Waterfront Elementary does not submit an approvable reform plan later this year, he will revoke that school’s registration – the same thing he threatened in the fall, before the school submitted a plan in December that the state has since rejected.

King defended his lack of follow-through on threats to close schools. “The biggest underlying challenge, whether we were to close Lafayette or close Waterfront, is that if the district is not able to develop high-quality [schools as] options, the mere shuffle of students is not an improvement,” he said.

The commissioner noted that the Board of Regents has for more than two years been pushing for legislation to enable the Education Department to appoint what would essentially be an academic control board in districts such as Buffalo that are persistently low-achieving.

That bill has not gained much support among lawmakers, who are wary of taking a step that would essentially displace the local Board of Education.