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Another Voice: Citizen Action is working to improve education

By Ellen T. Kennedy

A recent editorial called for education activists to “focus on the real problem of providing a sound quality education to all students.” As a founding member of the Western New York chapter of Citizen Action, and past president of its state board of directors, I can unequivocally say that our members are absolutely committed to finding real solutions for our schools.

Whether it is education, health care, the environment or election financing, the mission of Citizen Action is to organize individuals to make concrete changes in policies and systems that directly affect their lives.

Every year since 2012, our chapter has joined with activists across the state to win back dollars in the state budget that were slashed from schools. Our efforts this past year helped to restore $500 million.

In 2012, following the shooting death of Lafayette High School student Jawaan Daniels, Citizen Action focused on examining suspension policies. After intensive work, which included engaging Associate Superintendent Will Keresztes and members of the Board of Education, a new Code of Conduct was adopted in 2013.

The code, one of the most progressive in the country, prohibits out-of-school suspension for non-violent offenses, and also institutes a system of restorative justice. These changes directly affect attendance and violence in a positive way. Keeping children in school means they are learning in the classroom, and repairing relationships reduces violence. The challenge now is to obtain the resources to establish restorative justice teams in each school.

Currently the focus is on building community schools, not charter schools.

Charters have a mixed record – some fail and some succeed – just like public schools. Community schools are a model proven to succeed. Strategies include well-prepared and effective teachers; academic, social/emotional and health supports; positive discipline policies such as restorative justice; engaged parents, local businesses and non-profits; universal access to pre-K; equitable school funding; and expanded learning time, including after-school programs.

Cincinnati, Oakland, Evansville and Hartford are cities that have established community schools, which have proved to be effective in increasing graduation rates, narrowing the racial achievement gap, increasing proficiency and increasing after-school programs. The recent proposals developed by parents and teachers for Lafayette and Bennett high schools are examples of such schools in Buffalo.

Contrary to a recent letter to Everybody’s Column, Citizen Action community activists are not hypocrites, parasites or phonies. They are advocates who are in it for the long haul, and who will not quit until we have a sound, quality education for all.

Ellen T. Kennedy is a member of Citizen Action of New York.