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Successful program for at-risk pupils is at risk

Struggling kids from four Buffalo Public Schools have participated in a program at Cradle Beach for several years.

The kids who participated tended to do their homework, stay in school longer and complete more of their academic work. Teachers also say they behaved better in class.

But now Cradle Beach Camp may be pulling back on this program, frustrated by a revolving door of school leaders and lack of district commitment. Continuation of the program boils down to money, and after getting grants to fund the program for the last six years, Cradle Beach asked the district to pitch in a portion. But it isn’t getting a response.

The program – Success, Opportunity, Achievement and Responsibility – is a school-based educational and leadership effort serving 270 public students at risk of failing or dropping out. Established in 2009, the program costs $810,000 to run. For each of the last six years, Cradle Beach camp has covered 100 percent of the cost.

The program maintains relationships with students as they move up through the grades and has a successful track record, according to district administrators and academic studies of the program.

Given that track record, Cradle Beach wants the district to help fund SOAR. But the camp says it has gotten no commitment, not even calls back.

“We’ve met with everybody we’ve been told to meet with," said Timothy Boling, CEO of Cradle Beach Camp. “We’ve met with school board members. We’ve met with folks in the community. It just hasn’t gone anywhere.”

If it doesn’t get a commitment soon, Cradle Beach next year will likely partner with a charter school that has already committed to paying a share of the program costs. The district would have to commit to paying a quarter of the cost by the end of May in order to prevent a program rollback.

“If the program is going to continue to grow, it can’t be all on Cradle Beach,” Boling said. “We’re doing our part.”

The Buffalo News is a sponsor of Cradle Beach Camp.

When The News inquired, district administrators offered mixed messages regarding the funding request, citing both budget constraints and the district’s other priorities, as well as the success of SOAR.

Boling said he knew Project SOAR had to prove it was successful before it could ask the district to chip in. Hence the studies. During the program’s first two years, for instance, student performance on state English and math exams was higher than their peers, according to HausMark Research Services and the Center for Educational and Career Advancement.

After the program’s third year, Cradle Beach began asking the district to pick up one quarter of the cost. Organizers explained that they could not continue to indefinitely maintain and expand the program through their own foundation grants and fund-raising. They asked for an annual contribution of one-fourth the total cost to run the program: $200,000.

The problem was, each time they sat down with a district leader to gain a funding commitment, that person was gone the following year. First, there was Superintendent James Williams. Then it was Superintendent Pamela Brown. Now, there’s Interim Superintendent Donald Ogilvie, who will be gone at the end of June.

It doesn’t help matters than in the broader scheme of things, Project SOAR is relatively small. It serves 270 children, mostly in elementary and middle school, with the help of 25 full-time employees and AmeriCorps members who have built years-long relationships with the students at Lovejoy Discovery School, Lorraine Academy, Southside Elementary and International Preparatory School.

Project SOAR staff are in the classroom at the elementary-school level, and also provide individualized support outside of class. SOAR students also participate in overnight weekend retreats during the school year, as well as attend Cradle Beach Camp for 10 days over the summer.

Cradle Beach used to expand the program every year by adding new third graders, but stopped this year because they couldn’t afford it anymore, Boling said.

Now, he said, Cradle Beach is looking at pulling out of either Lovejoy Discovery, Lorraine Academy or Southside Elementary after this school year ends. International Prep has separate grant funding that helps support the program there.

Boling said he last talked with district administrators in March. They told him to check back with them at the end of April. Repeated efforts to reach district administrators since then have gone unanswered, he said.

In response to requests for comment, Ogilvie stated that his budget priorities are broader and include the addition of more physical education and music teachers districtwide, as well as the reduction of kindergarten class sizes.

“Due to the 2015-16 budget constrictions, along with the desires of our parent and teacher groups at-large, we have found it necessary to opt for the sorts of investments that will benefit the greatest number of students on a sustainable basis,” he said in a written response.

Will Keresztes, associate superintendent of student support services who has been a primary contact for Project SOAR organizers, issued a separate statement saying the district is still looking for a way to come up with the money to try and keep Project SOAR at all four district schools.

“We are actively seeking to identify potential funding partners,” Keresztes said. “Project SOAR has a proven track record with our students so we need to make every effort to find support. This is a program our students absolutely need.”