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Revised admissions are recommended for top city schools

Buffalo should open three new schools with high admissions standards while also eliminating a neighborhood admissions preference for Olmsted School 64, which houses the district’s only elementary gifted-and-talented program.

The district also should minimize the use of a single test – the IQ-type test used by City Honors and both Olmsted schools – as a primary determinant of student admissibility.

Those are among the more controversial recommendations in an 88-page report by the Civil Rights Project of UCLA that calls for major changes to the admissions standards of Buffalo’s most high-profile, criteria-based schools.

“Right now, basically, if you flunk the IQ test, you’re doomed for the most selective schools,” said Gary Orfield, who heads the nationally known Civil Rights Project. “That’s not a valid way to use a test like that.”

The fact that the city’s most academically competitive elementary school, Olmsted 64, sets aside 35 percent of its seats for those living in a certain neighborhood attendance zone is “just plain unfair,” he added, especially since the easiest and safest path to getting into City Honors is by first attending Olmsted 64 as an elementary student.

He also recommends that student grades be given much higher value in student placement in criteria schools and that New York State standardized tests, which he considers too new and unproven, be dumped as an admissions standard for any school.

Orfield’s lengthy report paints a dismal picture when it comes to racial equality in the district’s criteria-based schools, stating that the district’s most successful schools are simply too few, “systematically unequal,” and built on admissions standards that disproportionately reject black students, with only one out of every three African-American applicants gaining admission.

Overall, fewer than half of all applicants are admitted to criteria-based schools, and among those who were admitted, the overwhelming majority had previously enrolled in a criteria-based elementary school or charter school, the report found.

The district also shuts out immigrant students from its top-performing schools, with a mere 1.5 percent of English language learners admitted to its criteria-based schools.

“There was very unequal access to these schools,” said Orfield, adding that a civil rights complaint that precipitated his report “was correct.”

Last July, the school district agreed to review, revise and/or expand the admissions process at its criteria-based schools in order to resolve complaints filed by three parents with the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights. The parents alleged the district’s admissions policy discriminated against minorities – especially African-Americans and Hispanics – by disproportionately excluding them from the criteria-based schools.

To help resolve the complaint, the board voted unanimously in September to hire Orfield’s UCLA/Civil Rights Project research group to review and recommend changes to the district’s admissions standards for its highest-performing schools.

In developing the conclusions and recommendations in his study, Orfield was part of a team of nine researchers that conducted extensive surveys of both parents and teachers, interviewed principals, held focus groups and received email feedback, he said Tuesday in a meeting with Buffalo News editors and writers.

Most members of the Buffalo School Board met with Orfield one-on-one Tuesday to review his findings. He will make a formal presentation to the board at Wednesday night’s school board meeting at McKinley High School.

Although the district has seven criteria-based schools, Orfield said he focused primarily on City Honors, Olmsted 64 and Olmsted 156 because of their emphasis on IQ test cutoffs and because their admissions showed the greatest racial inequality.

He also said he chose to look beyond simply adjusting the existing criteria in Buffalo’s most selective schools, but rather answer the overwhelming desire of parents to have more viable school choice opportunities.

“This would be taking a crisis – and it is a crisis … and make it into an opportunity,” he said.

The school district has until August to submit a response to the Office of Civil Rights stating whether they accept or otherwise counter he study’s recommendations. One option the district does not have is to reject all recommendations.

While some parents have criticized the district’s school admission requirements as discriminatory, others parents have expressed reluctance to tinker with admissions standards that have yielded the highest-performing public schools in the district. Some have expressed concern that the study could result in a “dumbing down” of academic standards at Buffalo’s most prestigious public schools, especially if test scores wind up playing a lesser role in student selection.

“That’s how people are going to look at it, but they’re wrong,” Orfield said.

He does not advocate the complete elimination of IQ tests for City Honors and Olmsted schools. Rather, he recommends that those test scores be averaged in with other admissions criteria before determining whether a student is admitted.

In addition, he recommends that 10 percent of seats at each of these schools be set aside for students deserving of “special consideration.” Essentially, those would be students who have overcome great obstacles or show great potential for success, based on teacher recommendations or other factors, but who do not have the academic preparation to otherwise merit enrollment.

“I believe in very high standards. I just don’t believe in allocating opportunity to develop those talents on the basis of where you happen to live, or how much privilege you’ve had in your early education,” Orfield said, referring to the link between socioeconomic status and test scores. “I believe in giving a broad range of people a chance to develop themselves in very challenging circumstances.”

“It’s not about lowering standards,” he continued. “It’s about increasing opportunity.”

In regard to his recommendation that Olmsted 64 no longer set aside seats for student who live in certain parts of the city – neighborhoods where many parents with young children have deliberately moved to have greater odds of Olmsted admission – Orfield reiterated that being able to afford a home in a good neighborhood should not be the basis for getting better odds of entering Olmsted and gaining promotion to City Honors.

“That’s not fair, in a city where everything else depends on choice, that you have the most important school have a choice that you, basically, can buy,” Orfield said.

He then pointed to the recommendation to create more criteria-based schools. “The other side of it is that there’s going to be another school created that’s just as demanding as Olmsted, so the supply would be immediately doubled,” he said.

Of the new schools that he recommends be created, Orfield suggests both a City Honors II and another new high school, perhaps focusing on health sciences or dual language immersion.

The district has already discussed the possibility of eventually opening a new Buffalo Medical Campus High School after receiving a major federal grant last year, but has instead created new health-themed programs at Math, Science and Technology Preparatory School.

The report also recommends a new high-standards elementary school, with assignment by lottery among students meeting a minimum grade requirement whose parents sign a statement acknowledging the heavy time commitment required of students to meet the standards. The school would be developed in partnership with a local university.

Among other recommendations:

• The district must do a far better job of informing all parents of what their options are regarding criteria-based schools and how they can apply. The report calls the current information system “seriously inadequate” and harmful to students who attend schools more isolated by race and poverty. More outreach should also be made to immigrant families.

• The selection of teachers at criteria-based schools must change. The report states seniority should not be a factor in teacher assignments, and points out that 75 percent of teachers agree with this position. Moreover, teachers of color currently are grossly underrepresented at these schools.

• Buffalo should establish a regional magnet school, with help from the state, the Board of Cooperative Educational Services and foundations, that would be based in the city but extend beyond the school district, drawing students from suburban districts, as well.

In response to the report, interim Superintendent Donald A. Ogilvie said the district has to add Orfield’s findings to layers of other information and mandates that already exist.

Currently, the district is wrestling with how to reinvigorate its four out-of-time schools, expand several other academic programs this fall, and develop more community schools, in keeping with existing and proposed state edicts.

Based on School Board conversations so far, Ogilvie, Orfield and School Board President James M. Sampson expressed optimism that the Civil Rights Project recommendations may be one of the areas where the board may be able to reach some consensus on how to move forward.

“Everything in it, if you look at it in its totality, makes sense,” Ogilvie said.

To read the entire Civil Rights Project report, visit the School Zone blog at www.buffalonews.com/schoolzone. email: stan@buffnews.com