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Parents, districts leaders divided on civil rights expert’s recommendations

One parent leader feels vindicated that a civil rights expert’s report reaffirms his group’s complaint that admissions practices at some city schools discriminate against poor, minority children.

Meanwhile, a mother whose children attend Olmsted School 64 said she worries that changes to admissions standards could water down the school’s strong academic program.

And school district leaders have expressed both interest and anxiety over the recommendations that affect the district’s top-performing public schools.

Now that civil rights expert Gary Orfield has weighed in on the complaint against admissions practices at the city’s criteria-based schools, members of the Buffalo School Board must work together to take action on his recommendations to rectify the “civil rights crisis” by August.

Orfield’s Civil Rights Project report calls for opening three new schools with high admissions standards – including a second City Honors – and eliminating neighborhood preference for Olmsted School 64, which houses the district’s only elementary gifted-and-talented program.

Orfield also recommends the district minimize IQ-type tests as a primary determinant – or barrier – to student admissibility, and that it explore a regional magnet school that would draw students from the suburbs.

Technically, the board is under no obligation to adopt any of Orfield’s recommendations. But the board will be under close scrutiny from the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights, which could potentially use the millions of dollars in federal funding the district receives to force changes. If the board does nothing, federal sanction would likely follow.

“We have a situation of inequity here,” said board member Barbara Seals Nevergold. “We need to rectify it.”

All board members, except for Carl Paladino, met one-on-one with Orfield on Tuesday and Wednesday to review his findings and recommendations. When Orfield gave his official presentation at Wednesday’ night’s board meeting, board members asked questions but voiced no objections, suggesting that all board members may be able to reach agreement on a number of his recommendations.

Distinguished Educator Judy Elliott, who was appointed by the state to work with the district, praised the report as a “really incredible opportunity in this district” to make systemic changes to address districtwide flaws.

In response to a question by board member Sharon Belton-Cottman about how the board should move forward with its recommendations when the district is in chaos, Orfield responded, “Unity, leadership – they can make a huge difference. I believe these recommendations are feasible. And once they start operating on the ground, people will begin to think this district can do important, new things. ... Success is contagious, just as decay is contagious.”

Board President James Sampson said he believes the recommendations made by Orfield echo much of what the board majority has long sought – the expansion of seats in schools in good standing.

“I think the report is going to be helpful for the district,” he said after his meeting with Orfield, “and I think the recommendations are ones you’re going to find a high degree of consensus on from the board moving forward.”

Board members will have to reconcile their own opinions with those on the outside, including the hundreds of parents with children at schools that could be affected.

That debate could drive a rift between parents within a single school, pitting those whose children gain entry through Olmsted’s gifted-and-talented program against those guaranteed a spot because they live in the neighborhood.

Parent Amy Cappelli’s two oldest children gained entry to Olmsted through the gifted-and-talented program, giving them a chance she said they otherwise would not have had because they don’t live in the neighborhood.

Cappelli thinks removing the neighborhood preference would open up more seats for children who meet the school’s gifted program requirements, but worries that lessening admissions standards will water down the strong academic programs.

“There’s always going to be a fear that when you start to shuffle things around and change things, it will dismantle what we have,” she said.

The report comes nearly a year after the school district agreed to review the admissions standards 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.

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 e-mail feedback, he said Tuesday in a meeting with Buffalo News editors and reporters.

“We feel 100 percent vindicated,” said Samuel Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council, which initiated the complaint. “We’ve said this all along – we have a two-tiered education system in this city.”

Others, however, feel addressing the equity issue does not lie in isolating solutions to a few schools.

Rather, Buffalo Teachers Federation President Phil Rumore said every school in the district should offer students an accelerated or gifted program option. He also took issue with Orfield’s recommendation – based on teacher survey responses – that staffing at criteria schools not be based on seniority. Hiring practices included in the union contract have little impact on the quality of teaching, Rumore said.

“It has nothing to do with seniority,” he said. “It’s the same contract that’s in place at other successful schools in the district.”

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