Kriner Cash now has in place the elements to move forward on the reforms he has promised since he started three months ago as Buffalo school superintendent.
He has his key staff in place, plans for turning around some of the district’s most struggling schools and unprecedented powers to make changes that aim to improve student performance.
“Now, we can really go to town with these schools, these children and these teachers,” Cash said of the recent developments that pave the way for him to take action. “The magic starts to come in.”
Central to those actions will be finalizing plans for five district schools at risk of an outside takeover if they fail to show serious improvement by the end of the school year. Teams of teachers, parents and community stakeholders already submitted their ideas, which Cash will use as a starting point and further develop with the new powers the state education commissioner granted him earlier this month.
Although the immediate focus is on those five schools, whatever blueprint Cash lays out likely will be applied more broadly across the district.
“There are best practices we should be using in our classrooms,” Cash said. “I know what I’m looking for.”
Although the receivership plans are still a work in progress, Cash’s proposal for contractual changes gives some indication of what he will roll out in the coming months.
That includes a longer school day and year, more training for teachers and the possibility of staff changes, although Cash has indicated that is not an immediate priority.
More pressing may be some logistical changes to how the schools – and the teachers – operate.
Cash said he wants to look at how the day is scheduled and whether class periods are long enough for career courses or remedial programs that give students more time to hone their skills in a particular subject.
The union contract allows for 45-minute periods, and that does not leave much time for instruction once students get settled, some educators argue.
Cash also wants to hold schools and teachers more accountable for what is happening in their classrooms, with reviews of curriculum and lesson plans to make sure they meet their students’ needs.
Teachers also can expect more observations and classroom visits to assess their instruction.
Schools will be expected to set goals, and to undergo regular monitoring to make sure they are working to meet them.
Those changes set a framework to support new programs aimed at getting students more engaged in school and equipping them with skills needed to be successful throughout their academic careers and into the future.
At the elementary level, that means an intense focus on literacy and math, and supporting students to become proficient in those subjects before they move on to more-advanced material.
Cash wants to see more project-based learning, where students master basic skills working on in-depth assignments that also encourage critical thinking and hands-on experience.
At the high school level, Cash wants to develop career programs that teach students skills they could ultimately take into a future profession. He also wants to see more alternative graduation options for students not on track to earning a Regents diploma.
Some of those elements are already part of the plans that teams at individual schools submitted, and Cash said he will likely fine-tune some of the teams’ ideas.
At Burgard High School, for example, team members want to further develop an advanced auto-manufacturing program it launched last year, something that aligns with Cash’s vision for more career programs.
South Park High School’s plan calls for a community school model that includes partnerships with the Buffalo Police Department and county Department of Social Services.
The school-based teams that submitted plans for the schools largely asked for additional staff, including math and literacy coaches, and Cash by and large accepted their recommendations.
“From what I’m seeing and hearing, almost everything the community engagement teams recommended, Cash accepted,” said Larry Scott, co-chairman of the Buffalo Parent Teacher Organization.
Still, any changes Cash makes to those plans likely will face tough scrutiny from teachers and parent groups, many already skeptical that the receivership law will ultimately lead to improved outcomes for students.
Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore raised concerns about reviewing teacher lesson plans, or disrupting classes with walk-throughs.
“The whole thing about lesson plans is they don’t necessarily indicate you’re a good teacher or a bad teacher,” Rumore said. “It’s not a question of what the lesson plan says. A good teacher will adapt to what the students need in a moment.”
Cash, however, maintains that changes need to be made, especially at schools that have chronically struggled to meet state academic targets.
“We need to figure out what the best practices are for our population of learners,” Cash said.