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Charter director retires after creating ‘what a school should be’

King Center Charter School on Thursday paid homage to its founding director, Claity P. Massey, by giving her a very spirited, heartfelt send-off into retirement.

Students and staff all wore T-shirts bearing her picture and declaring it “Dr. Massey Day.” Mayor Byron W. Brown visited the school to read a proclamation honoring her. Third-graders serenaded her with a rendition of “We Are the World.”

Children and adults alike praised Massey’s gentle, loving approach, as well as her tireless dedication to the students.

“She has incredible humility, equaled by her tenacity and her vision,” said Cathy Wettlaufer, president of the charter school’s board. “What she has never forgotten to do is put the children’s education as her paramount concern.”

Massey, a native of Tennessee, was a professor of education at Houghton College for 24 years before leaving in the late ’90s to work with young children on Buffalo’s East Side at the King Urban Life Center.

In 2000, she became the founding director of the first charter school in Buffalo, King Center Charter School, housed in the former St. Mary of Sorrows Catholic Church on Genesee Street.

When it opened, the school served 80 students in kindergarten through third grade. Over the years, the program has grown to serve 260 students in kindergarten through sixth grade, with plans to expand through eighth grade in the next two years.

The school has had its ups and downs.

After its initial five-year charter expired, the school’s test scores were so low that state officials questioned whether they should close the school. Then, Massey implemented changes that improved achievement – including a longer day and a six-week summer program more focused on reading.

In more recent years, funding cuts have led the school to scale back its summer program to two weeks. The violin lessons that were once given to all students now are optional.

Still, many features that distinguish the school remain in place. Each classroom has two certified teachers, one provided through AmeriCorps for up to two years and one on staff long-term. A variety of partnerships within the community yield enrichment activities. All the students take ice-skating lessons in North Buffalo, for instance, through the help of Hasek’s Heroes. Fifth- and sixth-grade girls play squash at Buffalo Seminary.

Now, the school generally posts test scores slightly above district averages. Forty-two percent of fourth-graders are proficient in math and English, compared with about one-third in the Buffalo Public Schools.

Both the mayor and Regent Robert M. Bennett, on their Thursday visit to the school, deemed it “one of the best schools in the state of New York.”

“This really is what a school should be,” Bennett said. “Excellence is expected all the time of students, of teachers, of administrators. You have to love the students, and when you do, you have great expectations for all the students.”

Massey, 67, said she is looking forward to the chance to travel to see her daughters – one in New Mexico, one in North Carolina – and devote more time to her volunteer interests. She serves on the board of Jericho Road Ministries and belongs to True Bethel Baptist Church, where she plans to become involved in ministry programs.

And, she says, she relishes the opportunity to be able to reflect on her experiences with the students. On a daily basis, they overcome challenges with great creativity and resolve, she said. “The greatest privilege has been getting to know the children so well and understanding their life struggles,” she said. “I’m so impressed with their resiliency and their strength. We have so many examples of children solving problems in their lives that we can’t even imagine existing. Not everything can be measured by a test.”