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City schools look to save partnership with Buffalo Promise Neighborhood

The Buffalo school district is trying to salvage a key partnership with Buffalo Promise Neighborhood, which in May pulled out of its commitment at Bennett High School citing problems with communication and plans for the future.

Leaders with the district and Buffalo Promise Neighborhood now say they will return to the table with key stakeholders, including teachers and parents, to figure out how to move forward at the school.

That will likely involve coming up with a brand new plan to overhaul Bennett, one of the district’s chronically failing schools, where the state has mandated serious interventions.

“We were disappointed when we thought it had lost support,” said David Chamberlain, chief executive officer of Buffalo Promise Neighborhood and a senior vice president at M&T Bank. “We’re interested in re-engaging in a dialogue, if in fact the district is interested in some wholesale changes at the school.”

But resuming that partnership likely hangs on buy-in from the Buffalo Board of Education, which is expected today to consider a contract for a consultant who would draft a plan for Bennett.

The contract, which was previously rejected by the board, is being brought forth again by board member Sharon Belton-Cottman without the support of interim Superintendent Will Keresztes, who hopes the board will delay that decision until he can meet with Buffalo Promise Neighborhood leaders.

“We can’t do what we’ve been doing in the past few years with Buffalo Promise Neighborhood,” Keresztes said. “The Buffalo Promise Neighborhood partnership is too valuable for us to disengage them.”

The contract being proposed is for $140,000 with Dr. Constance Moss, School Recovery Agency.

Belton-Cottman, who represents the district in which Bennett is located, said the district cannot wait to move forward with its plans for the school, and that nothing precludes Buffalo Promise Neighborhood from participating in the process.

“We have to move forward as a district,” she said. “There are students’ lives that are being affected. Why is moving forward to come up with a plan for Bennett High School a problem?”

Belton-Cottman also expressed concerns that the organization may be jockeying to take over Bennett as a charter school. The incoming board majority has expressed interest in closing a number of the district’s lowest-performing schools and converting them to charters, something Belton-Cottman said is being pushed without input from the community.

“The politics that are at play here are a major concern for me,” she said. “All sorts of things are going on that are disingenuous, in my view.

“All I know is I have to move Bennett forward,” she added.

Buffalo Promise Neighborhood, which is supported by M&T Bank and several local foundations, has been a key partner with the school district, helping to orchestrate social services and other supports for students in the University Heights area in the northeast corner of the city. The goal is to support students from “cradle to career path,” a strategy that has gained popularity in school districts across the country.

The organization, however, withdrew its support at Bennett after former Superintendent Pamela C. Brown surprised its leaders with her proposal to close the school and relaunch it with a program focusing on science and technology.

Leaders with the group said they were shocked the district had not consulted them before submitting the plan to the state Education Department, which ultimately rejected it and directed the district to come up with a new one.

Keresztes said he wants to work with Buffalo Promise Neighborhood leaders to come up with a plan that includes some of the drastic changes the organization believes are necessary at Bennett.

“As you know, the problems at Bennett are complex and deeply rooted, and I believe that a radical transformation plan is necessary to achieve meaningful progress,” Chamberlain wrote this week in an email to Keresztes.

Both Keresztes and Chamberlain said it is too early to say what that drastic turnaround might look like, but in the next month will be coming up with a process for how to engage stakeholders in its development.

“The opportunity to come up with a new plan is critically important,” said Mayor Byron W. Brown. “All of the stakeholders have to be involved in that.”