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MLK turnaround could have Socratic solution

Of the four “out-of-time” Buffalo public schools that are being threatened with closure by the state, three have submitted district-sponsored relaunch plans that currently face no competition.

Martin Luther King Multicultural Institute, School 39, is an exception.

A locally based outside group, the Center for Modern Socratic Innovation, has quietly submitted a competing proposal for MLK that would train all teachers in an inquiry-based teaching method that promotes deep thinking and problem solving, and encourages students to take responsibility for their own learning.

That academic proposal is one of two that an evaluation team is considering for MLK, a High Street school that enrolls children from prekindergarten to eighth grade.

Meanwhile, Health Sciences Charter School remains interested in leasing the MLK building at 487 High for its own elementary expansion plans. It is expected to submit a request-for-space proposal for School Board consideration Jan. 7.

The proposal by the Center for Modern Socratic Innovation, a small Buffalo organization, does not demand any dramatic changes in school structure or resources. Instead, it seeks to establish a new schoolwide teaching technique, known as the modern Socratic method, to accelerate student learning.

“It teaches children how to learn,” said Dennis J. Welka, a former principal of School 43, who later employed the Socratic technique as principal at St. Andrew’s Country Day School in the Town of Tonawanda. “It literally makes teaching easier.”

The modern Socratic method is not new, but neither is it common in public schools. It requires intensive work and teacher training. Popularized by the classic Greek philosophers and employed at some schools and colleges, particularly law schools, the teaching method can yield good results if done well, advocates say.

Fundamentally, this technique lays out a question or problem for students to consider, where the teacher encourages brainstorming for solutions and helps the students make their own connections as they gain knowledge, consider details and compare and contrast information.

Instead of lecture and rote memorization, in which students can easily disengage from their learning environment, the modern Socratic method requires constant student engagement, and can result in accelerated learning, regardless of a student’s academic starting point, Welka said.

Welka referred to his six years as principal at St. Andrew’s, where staff members were trained in the modern Socratic method. Based on standardized TerraNova achievement tests, students there showed remarkable progress in reading, language arts and math, sometimes by multiple grade levels. They also incurred no academic backsliding over the summer, Welka said.

Referring to TerraNova test results from 2008 to 2011, he pointed out that in some cases, students who started out below grade level in a subject were well above grade level a year later.

The results were strong enough that Regents Chancellor Emeritus Robert M. Bennett took the results to the state Education Department, which recommended that the Center for Modern Socratic Innovation try out the modern Socratic method in an urban school setting.

“They had, as I recall, some pretty impressive results,” Bennett said of the group, adding that he encourages any proposal that promotes more active student involvement in their own learning.

Bennett recalls that when he was president and CEO of the United Way of Buffalo & Erie County, he took a class based on the Socratic method as part of a Harvard University leadership program and felt challenged by the instructor.

“It really forces you to think,” Bennett said.

He also said he’s looking forward to learning more about the other MLK proposal submitted by the school.

Former Common Council Member Norman M. Bakos, who is a lead partner in the Center for Modern Socratic Innovation, tried to place a Socratic method program at Lovejoy Discovery School 43 a year ago, without success.

What Welka, Bakos and three other partners with the Center for Modern Socratic Innovation consider a great asset of their proposal for MLK is that it doesn’t require any dramatic changes to school staffing, curriculum or existing structure or length of day. The program would, however, transform the culture of the school, they said.

The primary cost of the program would come from teacher training in the Socratic method, which would involve 12 techniques, and ongoing monitoring of the staff’s application of the teaching model, said Bakos and Welka. That would amount to about $300 per student per year. Much of the teacher training would likely be provided by Win Wenger, an educator and author who trains teachers in the use of Socratic teaching techniques.

The proposal submitted to the district would require a three-year contract with the Center for Modern Socratic Innovation, a for-profit corporation, which has been trying for several years without success to get the modern Socratic method adopted in a city school.

Bakos said the proposal submitted by his group could be combined with the district-sponsored proposal for MLK to make both proposals even stronger. MLK Principal Ramona Y. Thomas-Reynolds is open to the idea, he said.

However, the Socratic method proposal was submitted independently of MLK’s own proposal Dec. 12, and discussions combining the proposals did not occur until both plans were submitted separately.

The district-sponsored turnaround plan for MLK would emphasize a projects-based learning model organized around different themes. The school would also become more of a neighborhood school and house after-school and weekend programs.

Finally, leaders of Health Sciences Charter School plan to submit a request for space in one of Buffalo’s four out-of-time schools Jan. 7. Charter school trustee Cynthia A. Schwartz called MLK a “preferred location” because of its proximity to the existing charter high school on Main Street and the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

But given the lack of any information regarding how such a lease agreement might be fashioned and how much it would cost, the charter school is not committed to occupying a Buffalo school building.

“Obviously, it goes back to our ability to negotiate a financially doable arrangement with the district,” Schwartz said.

Also unclear is how the School Board intends to evaluate the Health Sciences Charter School proposal, since it will not go through the same vetting process as the other five academic proposals submitted to the district Dec. 12.

Given the many unknowns, Tapestry Charter School leaders say they are unlikely to submit a request-for-space proposal to the district Jan. 7. Tapestry representatives had previously toured Bennett High School and had been considering submitting their own request-for-space proposal to occupy one of the four out-of-time schools.

“We don’t have all the information,” said Joy S. Pepper, executive director at Tapestry. “We haven’t gone down this road before. We want to make a smart decision about what’s the best way for our community to grow.”

Aside from MLK and Bennett, the district must submit new academic phase-in plans for Lafayette and East high schools for those schools to continue to enroll new students in the fall. Any plan accepted by the district and the board must still be approved by the state Education Department in order to move forward.

For information on the use of the modern Socratic method at St. Andrew’s, visit the School Zone blog at email: