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District must find the right partner, right now, to rescue East and Lafayette high schools

News that Johns Hopkins University intends to cancel its contract to turn around two Buffalo schools is terrible timing, with schools reopening in a few weeks. The decision leaves Buffalo School District officials scrambling to preserve federal funding for the struggling schools.

Johns Hopkins was paid more than $1 million last summer to help turn around East and Lafayette high schools. After a year of work, the university decided it was an impossible task and wants out.

Besides being disheartening, the move by Johns Hopkins places millions of dollars in school turnaround grants in jeopardy.

Charles Hiteshew, CEO of Johns Hopkins’ Talent Development Secondary, the university’s school transformation organization, wants to wash his hands of Buffalo, saying: “We’ve exhausted all of our options.”

That’s not what the district needed to hear.

East and Lafayette high schools were together awarded roughly $2 million in school turnaround grants this summer, contingent on Johns Hopkins continuing its role with the schools. Interim Superintendent Donald A. Ogilvie and School Board leaders are rushing to find alternatives. If no other solution is found, there is talk of compelling Johns Hopkins to continue working with the district for the rest of the 2014-15 school year. That is hardly a good option. Johns Hopkins has given up and wants out. Forcing it to stay will not be good for the students.

Hiteshew said his staff was overwhelmed and overburdened by the administrative role of serving as de facto superintendent for the two high schools. Strangely, the organization had tried for years to become the district’s educational partner. The selection of Johns Hopkins, with its strong reputation in education, was greeted warmly by people who believed the university would bring new ideas to strengthen the schools.

But the needs of East and especially Lafayette, with its many immigrant students speaking little English, overwhelmed Johns Hopkins, which apparently underestimated the administrative duties required.

As an “educational partnership organization,” Johns Hopkins had specific responsibilities defined by the state. Hiteshew said the organization has a great deal of experience working as a turnaround consultant and partner for other struggling schools, but it has never before been a lead administrator for a school.

It’s too bad Johns Hopkins didn’t recognize the difficulties it would face when it signed the contract a year ago. A precious year has been lost, and the loss of the coming year is a possibility. Now the pressing issue is how to prevent that from happening. The contract allows Johns Hopkins to terminate its work with three months’ written notice. While the district might be able to compel the university to work into early November, the move would make little sense. The district should cut its ties to Johns Hopkins and move on.

However, the contract also indicates nothing could be done without the approval of State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. He should grant that request, and more important he should commit to maintaining the federal turnaround funding for the two schools. Losing the partnership organization is bad enough. Losing millions of dollars in funding would be devastating.

Going forward, the district has to find a new partner for East and Lafayette, and the sooner the better. One possibility is New York City’s Internationals Network for Public Schools, which serves more than a dozen international schools in New York City.

News reporter Sandra Tan went to one of those schools, International High School at Prospect Heights in Brooklyn, and found an example of all that can be accomplished when immigrant students are taught under a successful public school model.

Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch visited Lafayette recently and couldn’t understand why more was not being done. “There are many other high schools around the state who have very similar challenges,” she said. “We do not need to reinvent the wheel.”

State officials have repeatedly suggested that Buffalo schools work with the Internationals Network, but the Buffalo district has rejected the suggestion, citing the cost.

With the district on the verge of losing millions of dollars, that argument is no longer valid.