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Mistretta offers a ‘mom voice’ in call for change in Buffalo schools

Wendy S. Mistretta says she’s more frustrated than she was a year ago when she first ran for a seat on the Buffalo Board of Education.

“In the last year, we have seen the district really fail parents, very meaningfully,” she said.

The state Education Department has repeatedly rebuked the district for not giving parents a meaningful role in decision-making, she said, and parents in too many neighborhoods don’t have competitive academic options for their children.

All that needs to change, she said.

“I see continued, willful disregard for parents’ rights,” said Mistretta, 45. “I felt I needed to continue to be the ‘mom voice.’ ”

She considers the top issues on her agenda to be finding a way to meaningfully involve parents in school and district decision-making and finding ways to give all children access to schools that are healthy, safe and academically challenging.

Mistretta said she has witnessed the disparity among schools firsthand. Though her children have received a positive education at International School 45, she said, her oldest son enrolled in City Honors this year, and the disparity could not be more stark.

“In fifth grade, he’s taking French and Chinese,” she said. “I don’t know if there’s any other middle school that’s offering two foreign languages. It’s that kind of disparity that makes parents want to search for a school instead of placing their child in the school closest to their home and know that they’re going to have the same quality education.”

Mistretta holds a doctorate in higher education and considers herself a full-time volunteer. She serves as co-chairwoman of the district’s Multilingual Education Advisory Committee, is president of the Parent-Teacher Organization at International School 45 and is a member of the District Parent Coordinating Council’s executive committee.

She said she doesn’t want an expansion of admissions-based schools, but rather an expansion of admissions-based programs within neighborhood schools.

As examples, she said, gifted-and-talented programs could be incorporated in all neighborhood elementary schools, instead of having only one such program at Olmsted School 64. Or perhaps there could be a Pre-International Baccalaureate Program at International School 45, which currently offers no such advanced programs.

Finally, she said, there needs to be a better and easier way to meaningfully involve parents in district decision-making. Such a plan already exists, she said, but it hasn’t yet been implemented.

“The key issue for me is, what do the parents want?” she said. “The least we expect from all of our parents is that they get their children to school, rested, every day.”

That’s fine, she said. But for those who want to be more involved, there should be a way to welcome their input. Right now, she said, that doesn’t routinely happen, and not enough parents are trained to be real assets to teachers and administrators. She wants that to change.

Mistretta is among those who believe that Superintendent Pamela C. Brown should be fired. Though willing to give Brown the benefit of the doubt last year, she now criticizes Brown for marginalizing parents and community members and being unable to articulate a clear plan for district improvement.

Mistretta also supports expanding charter schools as long as the expansion is part of a parent-driven process. She believes that the city should increase district funding and that the mayor should have a vested interest in the district.

In response to concerns that the District Parent Coordinating Council is too negative and confrontational in its dealings with district leaders, Mistretta said the parent group has been forced to react to the district’s continued violation of state education laws.

“That’s not our desire,” she said, “but you can’t collaborate with someone who doesn’t even acknowledge your right to exist. It puts us in a defensive stance and makes us look aggressive, when all we’re trying to do is really just defend our rights.”

Mistretta said she has raised about $1,000 so far toward her campaign for a five-year term on the board in the May 6 election, an improvement over last year, and hopes to raise enough to cover lawn signs and a mailing. She said she’s working with a campaign manager and a support network of friends and family.