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Buffalo’s struggling schools may get extra state funds

Some of Buffalo’s most struggling schools may get a financial boost to offer additional support to students, after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo proposed $100 million statewide to assist such schools.

Buffalo will receive $12.5 million of that money, which aims to convert schools into community schools offering services that can range from parent outreach and job training to mentoring and connections to health care. The money comes as a number of Buffalo schools are already working on plans to become community schools, as was encouraged in the state’s new receivership law. Cuomo announced the $100 million initiative Wednesday during his State of the State address, also promising additional money for pre-kindergarten and a $200 tax break for teachers.

“Schools in poor communities not only face an education challenge,” Cuomo said. “They face many, many other burdens that schools in other places don’t face.”

Education advocates, however, argue that the amount is hardly enough to cover the kind of supports needed to set a community school up for success.

The largest portion, $75 million, will be divided among more than 100 schools – including 25 in Buffalo – the state has identified as struggling. The rest will be split by other high-needs districts – including Lackawanna, Niagara Falls and Sloan – with allocations of as little as $10,000 apiece.

“There’s no way you can transform a school with that little money,” said Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, a group that advocates for resources for schools. “It’s just the reality of what it takes.”

Easton also noted the high stakes for many of those schools if they fail to improve: Under the receivership law, they could be turned over to an outside entity.

“We think it’s a very positive direction for the governor to be going in, but there’s some serious issues that still have to be addressed,” said Easton, referring to the threat that schools will be turned over to an outside entity if they don’t show sufficient improvement.

Along with community schools, Cuomo also proposed:

• An additional $22 million to expand the state’s pre-kindergarten program for 3-year-olds;

• A $200 tax credit for teachers; and

• $50 million for an Urban Youth Jobs Program to help 10,000 at-risk youth find employment.

Cuomo said these programs are essential to provide students with support they need – academic and otherwise – to start on the path to a successful future.

He said it is critical to give young people hope and opportunity, which in turn should curtail criminal activity and reduce incarceration.

“Let’s invest in the right help early on so we are not paying for problems later on,” he said.

Community schools are designed to be hubs that link students and families with organizations that provide health, mental health, nutrition, cultural and recreation services as well as counseling and legal aid.

The new investment will build on Cuomo’s 2013 initiative that put $30 million into 62 schools in high-needs districts, allowing them to offer mentoring, summer learning opportunities and connections to medical, dental and other services.

The model was also strongly encouraged in the state’s new receivership law, which would put struggling schools in the hands of an outside receiver if they fail to show improvement. The receivership law allows for the superintendent – and potentially an outside entity – to make changes at struggling schools without approval from the School Board and that circumvent the union contract. The targeted schools are concentrated in seventeen districts, with 25 in Buffalo.

Many educators argue that in order to help students at those schools succeed academically, districts must first address the issues they face at home and in their communities.

Some of those schools facing receivership have already started working on plans to convert to community schools.

Last year, New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio announced plans to convert 94 of that city’s lowest-performing schools into community schools and dedicated $150 million to the effort.

And in Buffalo, South Park High School has been working to expand its partnerships with outside organizations with an eye on offering more wrap-around services to students. State education officials were so impressed with the school’s efforts that they want to use it as a statewide model, according to Superintendent Kriner Cash.

“Some of our kids have anger issues and poverty at home. We have kids that may have alcohol or drug problems,” South Park Principal Theresa Schuta said in a recent interview. “There’s so many societal issues right now. But what we have found, if we have the services here, that they’re easier for us to monitor, and we can really ensure that our kids are receiving what they need.”

Say Yes to Education and Buffalo Promise Neighborhood also provide support services for some city students in line with the community schools model.

News staff reporter Deidre Williams contributed to this report.