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A wake-up call to get Buffalo schools out of the 1950s

Leave it to outsiders to see so clearly what so many others don’t want to acknowledge: Buffalo has a two-tiered school system, separate and unequal, divided in large measure along racial lines.

If that sounds like a school district from the 1950s, it’s because that’s where Buffalo is when it comes to equality of educational opportunity.

Anyone who doubts it need merely skim the report from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, which calls for major changes in how the school system allocates seats in its criteria-based – and most coveted – schools.

Once a national model of desegregation, the city by 2012 had reverted to a system in which 70 percent of its schools were resegregated, with results to match. High-performing criteria-based schools such as Olmsted 64 and City Honors are majority white even though whites are only 21 percent of the district; blacks and Hispanics are left concentrated in the worst schools.

Put aside for a moment the cost to individual students and think of the big picture: That’s not where any modern city can afford to be, especially not one so obsessed with its national reputation.

While high tech at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and RiverBend and an emerging harborfront give us a 21st-century patina, that facade will crack under the weight of national scrutiny as soon as the New York Times and CNN start reporting on the city that fought to keep its two-tiered schools.

Beyond that, the Buffalo Niagara region’s economy cannot grow unless the urban workforce grows with it. As the report notes, “Any serious plan for revival of the city and its metro area has to include educational preparation.”

That means providing opportunity in good schools for blacks and Hispanics who make up the bulk of the district but are disproportionately shut out.

Part of that can be done by creating more schools like City Honors and Olmsted, which the report recommends. But it also calls for changing admissions criteria to de-emphasize IQ tests in favor of broader measures like grades and teacher recommendations.

While many who benefit from the current system will decry the “dumbing down” of admissions standards, the change would merely recognize what researchers already know: There are multiple types of intelligence, and attributes such as “grit” and perseverance to overcome obstacles also are keys to success. Or as Civil Rights Project director Gary Orfield put it when citing Ivy League schools as a model, “they look for talent,” not just test scores.

Critics – especially affected homeowners – also will be enraged by the call to eliminate the neighborhood preference for admission to Olmsted 64, the de facto feeder school for City Honors. But an alternative view is that they should be thankful they were able to buy into that advantage for so long, before now giving other families an equal opportunity.

That is what the entire report – part of a deal with the federal government to resolve civil rights complaints – is about: creating opportunity for kids who have been shut out.

Argue against that? Buffalo does so at the risk of severe federal sanctions.

More important, it does so at the risk of undermining the progressive national image it’s tried so hard to cultivate, and of stifling the potential of thousands of kids who at least deserve a fair chance.