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Poor children are focus for Collins

As the area’s newest representative to the New York State Board of Regents, Catherine Fisher Collins wants to be an advocate for poor children in the City of Buffalo and slow down some controversial educational reforms.

“Poor kids just don’t have the voice that they should have,” Collins said Tuesday after her appointment. “I intend to be a voice for the voiceless.”

That might include, she said, pushing to make sure the state’s education resources are equitably distributed among suburban and city schools.

Collins, 75, of Buffalo, is one of four new members state lawmakers appointed to the 17-member Board of Regents. The appointment ends the two-decade tenure of departing Regent Robert M. Bennett, 74, of the Town of Tonawanda, and also shifts the post representing the 98 school districts in this region from a suburban resident to one who lives in the city.

In the weeks leading up to the vote, Collins’ supporters heralded the many connections she maintains in the community, particularly with groups that serve the city’s lower-income population – which also makes up the majority of students in the Buffalo Public Schools.

Collins said she also plans to lobby for changes to the Common Core Learning Standards and teacher-evaluation system, saying the standards were implemented too quickly without districts and teachers having appropriate resources.

“You can’t just drop things on the public and just expect them to adjust to it,” Collins said, acknowledging that as a new member of the board, she is not yet sure how to remedy that situation.

Collins also wants to see the evaluation morph from one that many believe focuses on penalizing teachers. Instead, Collins said, the state should develop a system that aims to identify high-performing teachers who could serve as mentors, teacher leaders and possibly even principals.

“We have a whole army of good people out there, but we don’t know who they are,” she said. “Give them the support and have built-in career mobility.”

Noting that her daughter is a principal in the Buffalo Public Schools, Collins said that she understands how hard teachers work in the classroom.

The former Buffalo School Board member takes the state post at a particularly contentious and critical time for the city’s schools. The district is still searching for a permanent superintendent and also is dealing with a federal civil rights complaint over access to better schools.

Collins said that she hopes she can develop a relationship with members of the School Board and the administration so they can work together to solve problems facing the city’s students.

“I think it’s important that we can collaborate on issues affecting the schools,” she said. “I know how important it is for us to talk to each other.”

She will likely have the support to do that from members of the Buffalo School Board’s minority bloc, some of whom have publicly shared their enthusiasm for her appointment.

“We haven’t always had an open line of communication with the state Education Department,” said School Board member Barbara A. Seals Nevergold.

Some members of the board majority, however, had favored Bennett’s reappointment. Although her views on the Common Core and teacher evaluations fall in line with the state’s influential teachers union, her record on the Buffalo School Board from 2004 to 2009 shows that Collins may not easily be pegged into one camp or the other. In her five years, she formed alliances with various groups and members of the board, based on the issue.

“She’s a very intelligent person,” said Erie County Clerk Christopher L. Jacobs, who served with Collins on the School Board. “Very accomplished, and will certainly bring a lot of experience to the position.”