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Another Voice: Create partnerships with Buffalo’s charters while fixing problems at criterion schools

By Efrain Martinez

Effective urban education is hard work. Anyone who knows Buffalo knows we have serious challenges to overcome. Some of these challenges stem from socioeconomic conditions, some are self-inflicted. As daunting as these challenges may be, thankfully most agree that our students can and must achieve at high standards.

Each time the Buffalo School District gets new leaders at the superintendent and/or board level, the community at large welcomes them with a question: How long would it take for a total renewal of the district? Each time the question is answered truthfully: Absent of a change in the conditions and limitations we are to operate under, it will take up to 10 years for a total transformation into a high-achieving district.

The problem is that the children in our classrooms do not have 10 years to wait. Thankfully, there are things we can do now to provide better opportunities to kids next year while we wait on the long-term efforts to turn around the district. One such step is for local charters to partner with the district in helping with perennially failing schools.

The creation of such partnerships is not yet a reality and it may or may not come to fruition. As refreshing as the discussion of this possibility is, some obstacles remain, including this new one: I’ve observed the back-and-forth between Gary Orfield, a civil rights expert, and the Buffalo School Board. Orfield wants to halt any proposed district-charter partnerships while he works with the district to investigate whether the city’s criterion schools – meaning open only to the highest-performing kids – can be desegregated.

This is a worthwhile investigation. We should explore ways to encourage more socioeconomic and racial diversity in successful schools. But one important effort shouldn’t hold up another.

Buffalo should be able to do both – ensure equity in criterion schools’ admissions and partner with charters to address the schools crisis. We can walk and chew gum at the same time.

Orfield has already shown some bias against charter schools. In his September 2012 report, “E Pluribus … Separation: Deepening Double Segregation for More Students,” Orfield accuses charters of resegregating schools because we have chosen to serve the highest-need students who are more likely to be children of color.

Reports like this create a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” proposition. Charters are either accused of “creaming” if we serve too many white students or of resegregating if we serve too many students of color.

We shouldn’t let the politics of education get in the way of a good thing. Kids only get one chance at this. The adults owe it to Buffalo’s youth to try everything they can to help more students as quickly as possible – including partnering with successful charter schools.

Efrain Martinez is superintendent of the Charter School for Applied Technologies.