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Bennett alumni push honors, career programs to save school

Bennett High School alumni and administrators want to transform the struggling school into a place where both honors programs and college courses, as well as accelerated remedial instruction, will prepare every student for a college education.

Given Bennett’s former status as a powerhouse school with high-demand magnet programs that students once competed to attend, alumni have taken matters into their own hands to try and ensure its future as a district school.

A group of about 10, including current and former educators, have spent the past month producing an outline for an academic turnaround. With a fleshed-out plan due to the district by Dec. 12, alumni and school administrators have been racing to pull together the threads that would strengthen their proposal against any others that may be submitted.

Some of Bennett’s academic programs would have admissions standards, like other criteria-based schools in the district, though general education and special-education programs still would be offered.

Extended school days, after-school and nighttime learning opportunities, iPads for every student and skilled building trades and business education courses would comprise key components of the turnaround plan to be shared with the public Tuesday night.

Above all, Bennett would be primarily a neighborhood school, with about 70 percent of its students coming from the University Heights and North Buffalo neighborhoods, according to the plan heavily developed by the Bennett High School Alumni Association.

Bennett is one of four “out-of-time” Buffalo public schools that must submit an acceptable turnaround plan to the state or face closure. Lafayette High School unveiled its turnaround plan Nov. 10. Plans must also be submitted for East High School and Martin Luther King Multicultural Institute.

The district has floundered in its ability to develop acceptable turnaround plans over the past year. Two such plans for Bennett have been rejected since January, and a third plan was shelved by the School Board, resulting in Bennett losing its ninth grade this year as part of a school phase-out process.

That sent alarm bells through the Alumni Association, which has about 1,000 dues-paying members.

“The alumni said, ‘Look, if we don’t step up and do something, we’re not going to have a chance,’ ” said Neil Lange, a Bennett teacher for 34 years and member of the alumni board.

While the alumni plan is being developed, Tapestry Charter School has expressed interest in expanding and toured the Bennett High School building as a possible site.

“Quite honestly, I think we have an excellent opportunity here, and I think we’ll take full advantage of the time we have left,” said Margaret Puzio, a 1968 Bennett graduate and former superintendent of the Batavia City School District. “We’re quite optimistic that we will put something together that the district will be proud to be supportive of.”

Key elements of the Bennett transformation plan include:

• Maintaining a neighborhood focus: Bennett would primarily be a neighborhood school, drawing most students from ZIP codes 14214, 14215 and 14216. These ZIP codes largely represent the areas of University Heights, North Buffalo and the Buffalo Promise Neighborhood zone.

• An honors and early college program: Students would be required to meet certain admissions standards to enroll in the Bennett honors program, which would focus heavily on giving them access to college-level courses. This would require affiliation with a local college, which has not yet been selected.

Alumni introduced the idea of an honors program because Bennett once housed City Honors, back when it was just a fledgling program.

• A career-track program focused on high-level building trades and business education. This may include a design and engineering-related construction curriculum, as well as the creation of a business education component that would continue Bennett’s virtual enterprise program that has students design startup businesses. Like the honors program, this one also would have admissions standards and gear students toward a career-track high school diploma now being proposed by the state Education Department.

• General education with accelerated remediation: The new Bennett would start in eighth grade and provide extra help for students who do not meet admissions criteria for the school’s honors/early college or career programs. Eighth- and ninth-graders who are behind would participate in intensive, grade-level “academies” that would provide a more concentrated focus on English and math skills and provide an accelerated remediation program based on Common Core curriculum designed to get students up to grade level.

• Extended school day: Bennett’s school day would be roughly an hour longer for students on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, with a built-in, half-hour catch-up period at the end of the day for all students who require extra, individualized attention from teachers. This would likely require the Buffalo Teachers Federation to agree to an adjustment in work rules.

The plan also calls for a “transitional program” from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. that would offer students access to after-school enrichment and GED programs, as well as the resurrection of Bennett’s night school program after 6:30 p.m., which would be accessible to both students and adults.

The school day would end early on Wednesdays so that teachers could spend the afternoon doing more planning and training.

• Personalized attention: The plan calls for students to spend one class period every day in an advisory or guidance period with a dozen peers and an adult staff member who would serve as counselor and adviser for the four years that students attend high school.

• Special-education teachers: The Bennett plan calls for a special-education teacher to be embedded in every classroom so that students with special needs are not excluded from the opportunities other students would have. Principal Bert Stevenson said that nearly 40 percent of Bennett’s student body is classified as having special-education needs.

Stevenson also said he’s confident that the hard work of the many who have given up personal time to help craft the plan will pay off.

“I’m very proud of their work, the product they are producing and the connections they are making,” said Stevenson. “This project would not be where it is right now without the assertive effort of the alumni.”

The Bennett public meeting will be at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the school auditorium, 2885 Main St., to highlight the preliminary turnaround plan and seek further public input and support.

Though the plan is ambitious and based on elements that have proven successful in other schools, there are many elements that still need further work.

Plan developers still need to gain partnership commitments from outside organizations and educational institutions, which would be necessary for the plan’s success. And that work must be done within the next two weeks.

Bennett’s plan is also expensive. No final budget has been developed, and the question of funding remains unaddressed so far.

“These are not luxuries or things that our Buffalo students don’t deserve,” said Puzio, the former Batavia superintendent who now serves as interim director of secondary education for the Sweet Home School District.

Though the state Education Department stated months ago that the district was required to hire and assign consulting experts to assist the four “out of time” schools in creating new turnaround models, a plan facilitator for Bennett was not hired to begin work until just last week.

Plan developers, however, say they will do everything possible between now and Dec. 12 to put forth the strongest and most complete plan possible.

“Our hope is that we can save the school,” Lange said. “That’s the bottom line.”