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Buffalo School Board faces decision on response to civil rights report

A few decades ago, Buffalo developed a system of magnet schools that became a national model.

The district created the magnet programs, including the one at City Honors, as a way to integrate the schools after a federal judge ruled that the city schools were extremely segregated.

Now, nearly 40 years later, schools born during that integration effort are the subject of a new civil rights debate, with a recent report finding that the admissions standards at those schools discriminate against poor and minority children.

In his report, civil rights expert Gary Orfield called for changes to the admissions standards at the schools, along with the creation of new schools that would offer similar opportunities to more students.

The Buffalo School Board must now decide how to respond.

What is intriguing is that some of Orfield’s suggestions parallel what members of the Buffalo School Board majority have been pushing for since they took control last July.

Orfield’s report, for instance, calls for the creation of more schools with special programs designed to attract students based on interest, not academics. It also recommends a second City Honors school.

When the board majority came into power last year, its members issued a recovery plan to increase the number of spots in high-performing schools by about 4,300 in the next two years.

Granted, the board majority also said it wanted to encourage the growth of charter schools and turn over control of the district’s lowest-performing schools to the state Education Department.

But the board majority’s six-point plan did state that it intended to:

• Increase the number of seats at the district’s top-performing schools, including City Honors and Olmsted.

• Evaluate the district’s career programs, and assess ways to create and expand those that align with future workforce needs.

Those goals appear to mesh with some of Orfield’s suggestions from last week.

Succeeding at turning around the district and offering more opportunities for students carries weight not just for students but for the city itself.

A quality school system is critical to Buffalo’s redevelopment and enticing more families to move into the city.

Parents, particularly those in the middle class who have the means to move to the suburbs or pay private school tuition, demand high-quality schools. Many people tie the residential growth in the Elmwood Village to the fact that children in that neighborhood get preference to attend one of the district’s most successful schools, Olmsted School 64.

“All over the country, it’s part of real estate listings what school you’re associated with,” said Christian De lisle, whose children attend Olmsted. “There are people who move to Williamsville because there are good schools. There are people who move to the Elmwood Village for other things, but also because there is a good school.”

That preference for the school’s limited number of spots, however, comes at a cost to hundreds of other students, particularly poor children, who more often than not find themselves in schools that struggle to meet academic standards.

Ultimately, that has resulted in what many call a “two-tier” education system that works to the advantage of children of a certain race and class.

“Class and economics are really driving a lot of this,” said School Board President James Sampson. “This is not an issue of just race in Buffalo. It’s also economics. This is a much more nuanced thing.”

Striking a balance and creating a more equitable system could ultimately upset families on both sides of the spectrum, particularly if the board opts to close existing schools and replace them with new criterion models.

Still, most agree something needs to be done.

“We have a situation of inequity here, and we need to rectify it,” said School Board member Barbara Seals Nevergold. “Forty years ago, Buffalo faced this issue and became a national model. It’s an opportunity to address this issue again.”

In a city that has long been one of the most segregated in the country, the question of school equity is a constant. And the segregation in schools directly relates to the extreme residential segregation throughout the city.

The magnet schools that came out of the federal lawsuit in the late 1960s were widely considered a success, attracting educators from all over the country who studied the district as a model for their own.

But that success slowly unraveled once the court desegregation order was lifted in 1995, and federal funding to help pay for the magnet programs dried up.

Buffalo’s schools gradually resegregated, as many students returned to schools within their own neighborhoods and middle-class families gravitated to the relatively few good schools left in the district.

By 2012, the schools were just as segregated as they had been before the integration effort.

Although any student can apply to schools like City Honors and Olmsted, the parents behind the civil rights complaint that prompted Orfield’s review argued that the admissions criteria at these schools – heavily dependent on standardized tests – give an unfair advantage to white, middle-class children, who typically have access to more resources and support than poorer ones.

“People who benefit from the status quo don’t see where the status quo isn’t working,” said Samuel Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council, which filed the complaint. “The report is about creating those opportunities for every student.”

The residential preference at Olmsted 64 adds another layer to the dynamic, with 35 percent of the school’s spots guaranteed to children living in the predominantly white Elmwood Village neighborhood.

If his children did not have the option to attend Olmsted 64, Delisle isn’t sure his family would remain in the city.

“When you have kids, you know their education is very, very important,” he said. “It’s more important than being happy living in Elmwood Village or the city.”

Radford, however, points out that, as Buffalo develops, there will be more groups of middle-class families in different pockets of the city who will want the same thing for their children.

“They’re not just going to sit back and let the people in Elmwood Village have the privilege,” Radford said.

That would seem to indicate the solution rests in creating more high-quality schools that would offer more opportunities to appeal to all students – regardless of race or class.

“There seems to be a consensus that we need to add good-performing schools for our students in the Buffalo Public Schools,” said David Rust, executive director of Say Yes Buffalo. “If we don’t, then things like jobs at the Medical Campus or meals at (716) or renting an apartment downtown won’t be opportunities available to everyone. And that’s unacceptable.”