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Four struggling Buffalo schools reclassified as schools in good standing

Four Buffalo public schools have improved enough academically to join the ranks of schools considered to be in good standing with the state. But two other schools have fallen from being schools in good standing to “focus schools” that have experienced academic setbacks.

That brings the total to 15 out of 56 city schools – roughly one out of every four – that are doing well enough to avoid mandated state improvement plans and other interventions. All of the schools that will see a change in designation this coming school year, for better or for worse, are elementary schools.

How the state labels schools is a complicated process and involves detailed formulas. Though every public school in the state holds a designation of either “good standing,” “focus” or “priority” – the lowest possible academic designation – these labels are not necessarily the best indication of how well a school is doing or how many students are considered proficient on state tests.

Changes in designation are best viewed as a measure of whether a school has shown at least two years of improvement or whether a school has lost ground academically.

For example, Stanley Makowski Early Childhood Center 99, which serves 800 children in prekindergarten through fourth grade, moved from being a priority school to being a school in good standing for 2015-16. That change occurred because Makowski met federal benchmarks for improvement on standardized tests in English and math two years in a row, 2012-13 and 2013-14, the most current year for which data is available.

In terms of actual student proficiency levels, Makowski Principal William Boatwright says the school is moving in the right direction but has plenty of room for improvement, with test scores rising from 4 percent to 11 percent in English, and 3 percent to 13 percent in math.

“We know we have a long way to go, but I’m all about growth,” he said.

He attributed his school’s improvements to Makowski’s team spirit and emphasis on Common Core training, data-driven action plans, midyear diagnostic assessments and teacher accountability for classroom improvements. Makowski houses the district’s only elementary International Baccalaureate program and offers Mandarin Chinese as a foreign language.

The other schools that have moved into “good standing” are Grabiarz School of Excellence 79, Roosevelt Early Childhood Center 65 and Houghton Academy 69.

Lorraine Elementary School and Hillery Park Academy 27 have lost their “good standing” status and are now considered “focus schools.” They were downgraded based on a recommended list the state provided the district.

Because the state considers Buffalo Public Schools a “focus district” with a high percentage of struggling schools, it provides more federal money to the district but also requires Buffalo to maintain a certain percentage of “focus” schools. In past years, to ensure the district continued to receive the higher level of aid, it could not move any focus schools into good standing – even if the schools merited the change – without demoting an equal number of schools already in good standing down to “focus school” status.

Critics have argued that the current system financially punishes struggling districts in which more schools are improving that failing.

“It’s sort of unfair,” said new interim Superintendent Darren Brown, “and that’s why we ran into the same problem last year.”

Houghton Academy had qualified to be a school in good standing in 2014, but because the district did not want to demote any existing schools in good standing at that time, Houghton was not reclassified last year.

The good news for the district this year is that the state allowed three focus schools to be reclassified as schools in good standing – Grabiarz, Roosevelt and Houghton – but only required that two schools in good standing this past year be reclassified as “focus schools,” said Genelle Morris, the district’s assistant superintendent of shared accountability.

In addition, because Makowski was a priority school, not a focus school, it could be reclassified as a school in good standing without requiring the district to swap out other schools on the “good standing” list.

In January, the state is expected to reconfigure its designations for all public schools. As part of the change, the state is expected to eliminate the swapping requirement that exists now, Morris said.

Brown said he was excited to see the district’s schools move in a positive direction, and despite the long road ahead, parents and staff should be proud of the progress district schools have made. The district’s other schools in good standing include Discovery School, Emerson School of Hospitality, Olmsted School 56, Olmsted School 64, International School 45, Hutchinson-Technical Central High School, Leonardo da Vinci High School, City Honors, Occupational Training Center, School 81 and School 84.