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Three top schools left off list for transfers

Thousands of students in the Buffalo Public Schools this month can request transfers out of failing schools and into good ones, but not into three of the most sought-after: City Honors and Olmsted 64 and 156.

The district dropped those three from the list of choices in one of the biggest changes to the transfer process this year. The three, along with other criteria-based schools with special admissions requirements, were singled out in a report last year from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights because of “statistically significant” differences between acceptance rates for black and white students.

The district’s parent advisory group has called on the Board of Education to reverse the decision and include those schools or the group will take up the matter with federal and state education officials. But district administrators said that it was state Education Department officials who gave them permission to omit the schools because each has a waiting list for every grade and no seats are available.

In addition to taking some sought-after schools off the list, the district also shortened the time frame for requesting student transfers, though the window – this week through March 31 – may eventually be extended. And for the third year in row, no paper applications will be available; parents must apply online. The parent group warns that it may challenge that requirement, as well, if the district doesn’t change it.

The Office of Civil rights began investigating Buffalo after getting a complaint that the district disproportionately excludes nonwhite students from some of its better schools, such as City Honors and Olmsted.

But district officials left those schools off the transfer list this year “in consultation with SED,” said David Mauricio, chief of strategic alignment and innovation, referring to the state Education Department. “SED had indicated, don’t put things on the application that are false. So if there are truly no vacancies available for students, don’t put it on the list. It’s misleading parents and creates a false sense of opportunity for parents. Those seats are filled by waiting lists.”

The omission of City Honors and Olmsted 64 and 156 is a “serious concern,” said Samuel L. Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council. He said the group is poised to take the concern up the ladder. “Please be advised that we intend to ask for an emergency review of this decision by the Office of Civil Rights if you choose to leave them out as an option,” he wrote in a parent council letter to interim Superintendent Donald A. Ogilvie and School Board President James M. Sampson this week.

The letter outlines the parent council’s concerns with this year’s transfer-request process. Topping the list was the removal of City Honors and both Olmsted schools because it takes away choices from families, Radford said. A better consideration would be to leave the three schools on the list of transfer choices and advise parents on the application that those locations have waiting lists that render enrollment in those schools virtually impossible.

The problem with that, Mauricio said, is it still leaves room for false hope for students that they can get into those schools.

“There isn’t really an opportunity for students to transfer in that way, so putting that on the application gives the perception there may be a possibility it may happen when, in fact, it’s not,” he said.

The removal of the three schools from the list of choices leaves only nine other schools in good standing, out of 58 in the district, that students can pick from: Hillery Park Elementary, International School, Discovery School, Lorraine Elementary, School 81, Stanley M. Makowski Early Childhood Center 99, Leonardo da Vinci High School, Emerson School of Hospitality and Hutchinson-Central Technical High School.

Radford pointed out that Emerson and Hutch-Tech have waiting lists, too, but that the district kept them as options.

That’s because there is only a waiting list for ninth-graders at Hutch-Tech, but there are seats available in other grades, Mauricio said. Additionally, plans are in the works to open annexes of both schools: Emerson in the fall and Hutch-Tech for the 2016-17 academic year, said district spokeswoman Elena Cala.

City Honors and both Olmsted locations were identified in a settlement the district agreed to last summer with the Office for Civil Rights, which had been investigating complaints of racial disparities among students attending Buffalo’s criteria-based schools, those that require students to have certain grades or test scores for admission.

As part of the settlement, the district contracted with the Civil Rights Project – a nationally known research group – to review its admissions criteria. The organization’s focus is to make sure that access to schools is fair, expand opportunities for students to go to good-quality schools and recommend changes to the district’s admissions standards for the schools in question. In turn, district officials will review the group’s recommendations and determine which corrective measures they will take. If the district doesn’t comply with all of the recommendations or give acceptable reasons for why it isn’t, the federal civil rights office will resume its investigation.

Researchers led by group co-founder Gary Orfield still are collecting information, but Buffalo administrators acknowledged an outside chance that Orfield’s recommendations could nullify the transfer requests altogether and replace it with another process. But at this point, it is premature to speculate on exactly what recommendations are going to come back from the Office for Civil Rights and Orfield, Mauricio said.

“So we really need to wait to see what the recommendations are, but we presume in some way there will be recommendations for expansion for good schools on other sites, similar to what we’re doing at Emerson,” he said. “What I would share is, the recommendations from Orfield will be vetted by the superintendent, the Board of Education, our leadership staff and obviously stakeholders. Then action steps will be determined as to how we will move forward after that.”

As for the shortened time frame for students to make transfer requests, it is possible that the window will be extended this year, after all, Cala said, “if only due to the fact that State Ed has yet to release a determination on ‘focus,’ ‘priority’ and ‘good standing’ schools.” If certain schools get recategorized, it might affect parents’ choices and necessitate more time to deal with last-minute requests.

In previous years, the time frame varied, said Mark Frazier, district director of student placement and registration. Last year, it was from March 17 through April 30 to allow more time because spring break occurred in the middle of the application window. In 2013, it was July 1 through July 31. And the year before that, it ran from Aug. 31 to Sept. 21.

Parent council leaders also questioned the online-only application process and are asking to add a paper application as an alternative, citing low participation in the district’s online Parent Portal that lets families keep up with student progress and communicate with teachers.

“Based on the low number of parents engaged in the Parent Portal, we believe that few parents have access to Internet resources, and it is not the most effective means for communication with parents,” Radford said.

Radford said that if the paper choice is not provided, the parent council will appeal to federal officials.

But don’t expect a paper choice to be added anytime soon, district administrators said.

“In 2012 and 2013, there were complaints about the paper application system to such a degree that the process needed to be revised,” Frazier said, adding that the state let the district use the online system “as long as we provided daily support opportunities to parents/guardians.”

There were no complaints from parents last year, he said, and if there are complaints this year, the district will resolve them.

He said computers are available at Central Registration offices on Ash Street from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays for parents to complete the applications. Extended hours also will be available from 4 to 6 p.m. Wednesday, as well as March 19 and 23, and if a parent needs another time frame, arrangements will be made.

For parents who are not computer-savvy or have trouble reading English, staff members will help them complete the application. Also, translation services in Spanish will be available, and two dates have been established during extended hours Wednesday and March 23 for parents/guardians who require translation services in Arabic, Burmese, Karen, Nepali, Somali and Swahili. In addition, all staffers have access to LanguageLine, which provides real-time translation over the telephone when parents who speak another language call the district.

The district’s school transfer-request program has been in upheaval for a few years. In this academic year, for instance, only about a third – 368, or 33.8 percent – of the 1,090 students who applied for transfers got their wish. That includes 114 who transferred to charter schools in good standing through a partnership the district started last year when there were not enough seats in district schools that are in good standing.

This past January, however, school officials announced that there were 174 seats still available in good schools, all at the elementary level, for this school year up until a Feb. 6 deadline for student placement. Still, officials refused to reach out any further to 376 families on this year’s list who did not respond after several attempts to contact them by telephone or first-class mail. That’s despite an uproar that occurred last year when far more families applied for transfers than could be accommodated.

For 2013-14, about 2,200 students sought transfers from low-performing schools – up from 500 in 2012 and 300 in 2011. It was the most transfer requests the district has received since the early 2000s, when the system was established. It largely was the result of Radford and the parent council’s campaign to encourage parents to sign up for seats in good schools.

In the end, only 449 students – or 21.8 percent of applicants – were placed in good schools last year.

But administrators pointed to progress in the transfer request system.

Last year, for the first time, Frazier said, “the public school choice process in the district was trouble-free and completed on time.”