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Integration grants could help Buffalo draw suburban students

In an attempt to better integrate what one study deemed the most segregated state school system in the country, the state Education Department is committing millions of dollars to programs to attract more middle-class students to high-poverty districts like Buffalo.

The state announced the new voluntary integration program during John King’s last week as education commissioner. It offers districts grants of up to $1.25 million per school to come up with models that aim to attract middle-class students, including those from the suburbs. The grants for the Socioeconomic Integration Pilot Program will be awarded to up to 25 of the state’s lowest-performing schools.

Those schools – essentially following the magnet model – could reinvent themselves to focus on careers, the sciences, foreign languages or embrace another popular education framework, such as Montessori, offering programs not readily available now in suburban districts.

In a statement, King wrote that diversity in schools creates important educational opportunities for all students and that children should not be isolated in low-performing schools because they live in struggling neighborhoods.

“Certainly, this is a significant personal priority to try and support efforts that encourage socioeconomic integration,” King said in an interview with The Buffalo News. “It’s an issue I’ve been concerned about and talked about repeatedly. And this is an issue that is getting growing attention around the country.”

It is somewhat unprecedented for a state to direct some of its federal funding to encourage integration programs, said King, who is leaving his post to take a job as a senior adviser to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Connecticut has a notable program that allows students from the inner city to attend school in nearby cities.

New York has already made some effort to encourage integration, namely through regional schools that draw students from numerous districts. The new grant program takes those efforts to a new level.

“Part of the strength of this grant program is it will create high-quality opportunities that are going to attract a range of students,” King said.

The grants are available to districts with at least 10 schools and in which at least 60 percent of students live in poverty. Buffalo is the only district in the area that meets that criteria; and based on its population, it can apply for grants for up to three schools.

Districts can apply for money to implement one of several models at their most struggling schools.

The suggested models include career or STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – programs that incorporate a residential experience at a post-secondary institution. The schools also could have an appealing theme, such as the arts or foreign languages.

In an email, Donald A. Ogilvie, interim superintendent of the Buffalo district, wrote that the grant aligns with several priorities and projects the district already has under way.

“This grant opportunity, despite the tight time frame for application, appears to align with several of our priorities: school choice, the proposed Newcomers Academy, expanding Emerson School of Hospitality as well as any initiatives that may emerge through the study of our criterion-based schools’ admissions processes,” Ogilvie wrote. “With the Regents embracing multiple pathways to graduation, we also see potential support for the Math, Science and Technology Preparatory School and the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Partnership (ISEP) with the University at Buffalo and Buffalo State. I would think that building off success will pay off for our students.”

Research consistently reinforces a correlation between school success and the percentage of students living in poverty. That’s driven by the fact that low-income students often come to school with more baggage than their more affluent peers. In large urban school systems such as Buffalo, the incredibly high concentration of poor students – 84 percent of Buffalo’s children qualify for free or reduced price lunch – overwhelms the system. Schools and teachers must address issues such as hunger, trauma and instability before even beginning to focus on learning.

“Sixty years after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, far too many of our students remain trapped in lower-performing schools as a result of their socioeconomic status,” Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl H. Tisch wrote. “The Court in Brown found that ‘separate educational facilities are inherently unequal’ – yet more than half a century later, we still see tremendous disparities in our schools along socioeconomic lines. New York will reach its full potential only when all students have equal access to exceptional schools.”

During his tenure as commissioner, King often spoke about this concentration of poverty and the vast inequities that exist within the state’s public school system. His words echoed those of researchers and civil rights advocates, who are increasingly calling for better education opportunities for poor and minority children.

“This is really innovative thinking by New York State – creating new high quality schools and voluntary school transfer programs to attract students across school district lines, reduce racial and economic segregation and boost student achievement,” said Philip Tegeler, president of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council and a member of the National Coalition on School Diversity.

The concept of a magnet school is nothing new, but is one that has diminished in popularity since the federal government stopped awarding dollars to encourage such programs. Some education officials have speculated that future rounds of competitive grant programs, such as Race to the Top, might require states to start initiatives that promote integration.

The Buffalo Public Schools, while under a court order, once had a system of magnet schools heralded as one of the best in the country. But once a judge lifted that order, the system essentially unraveled. A Buffalo News analysis earlier this year revealed that the school system is just as segregated now as it was in the 1970s, fueling inequities that are now the subject of a federal civil rights complaint against the district.

The situation in Buffalo matches that seen throughout the rest of the Buffalo Niagara region, which the Civil Rights Project put in the top 3 percent of the country for its failure to integrate students. Another report released last year by the Rochester Area Community Foundation determined that Buffalo is the most segregated metropolitan region in the country.

The Civil Rights Project study found that two out of every five black students in the Buffalo Niagara region – 40 percent – attended a school where less than 10 percent of the student enrollment was white, although white students make up more than 70 percent of the overall metro population, the report found.

Conversely, white students overwhelmingly attended schools where fewer than 10 percent of students were black.

The Buffalo News analysis yielded similar results, showing that about three out of four schools in the region would, by the framework of Buffalo’s desegregation order, be considered segregated, meaning that at least 80 percent of their population was either white or minority.

Change, however, never comes easy, and school integration remains a politically charged topic. That became evident by the backlash from parents in the suburbs when Buffalo school leaders proposed opening up seats for city students in their districts.

The state Education Department is encouraging districts to develop models with public input and engage the community in the planning process. Districts have until mid-February to submit applications, and could open the programs in either the 2015-16 or 2016-17 school year.

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Voluntary school integration

Outgoing Education Commissioner John King announced a new grant program to encourage school integration

Qualifying districts, including Buffalo, can apply for $1.25 million per school

Programs would aim to draw suburban students to strike a socioeconomic balance

Schools could offer programs focused on careers, the arts or sciences

email: tlankes@buffnews.com