For the first time since he was hired five months ago as superintendent of the Buffalo Public Schools, Kriner Cash has begun rolling out to the public his vision for improving the troubled district.
He dubbed it the “New Educational Bargain” with students and parents.
But is Buffalo buying it?
And how much will it cost?
After talking with everyone from parents to the mayor about the issues plaguing the school district, Cash distilled them down to a half-dozen goals so the community has a clear understanding of where the district is headed – and what’s at stake. Dramatic improvement of the school system is key, not just for the kids of Buffalo, but for the future of the city. Thriving schools are essential to prepare the workforce for the new medical and high-tech economy the city is trying to create, as well as to attract and retain the middle-class families Buffalo needs to turn itself around.
Cash already has hinted at some of the initiatives, such as more emphasis on math and reading in the early grades and redesigning high schools for emerging career fields.
“There’s a lot of good things that are here and will continue. If it’s not broken we won’t fix it,” Cash said, “But there are parts that need to be repaired and upgraded and re-envisioned so we can get quality across the system. That’s what we’re going to do. This is a start.”
Maybe the hardest – and arguably the most important – of Cash’s six goals is establishing a new relationship with district teachers, who are in the midst of a lengthy and combative negotiation process to revamp a contract that expired more than a decade ago.
“One of the biggest things he can do to improve the relationship is to settle our long overdue contract,” said Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore. “Award the teachers and employees for the progress we’ve made. That would be the best thing he could do.”
Past superintendents have made similar overtures, Rumore said, but have not always followed through. Nonetheless, he said, it’s a positive step.
“There’s nothing better than to have an open dialogue,” Rumore said. “We may have different opinions, but I think it’s important for each side to understand the other person’s point of view.”
Cash’s five other reform proposals include:
• A more rigorous early elementary education. The focus will be on reading and math in pre-K through third grade with the goal of lowering class sizes to 18.
“That sets the stage for success longer term if they can get a good grounding in literacy and numeracy in those pre-K through three years,” Cash said. “When we haven’t done that in the past, we then have all these students who can’t read in the 10th, 11th and 12th grades.”
• Strong community schools. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo this month proposed $100 million to convert struggling schools into “community schools,” designed as hubs for students and their families to link with organizations that provide health, nutrition, mental health, counseling, legal aid and cultural and recreation services, Buffalo would be in line for about $12.5 million of that state pot.
Cash proposes designating four to six schools in each quadrant of the city as community schools that would be open as late as 11 p.m. so the public can use the buildings after hours for meetings, recreation, as voting centers and to obtain services.
• New innovative high schools. The superintendent wants more high-quality options to close the gap between the city’s traditional high schools and those that students have to test into. The district already has unveiled several redesign plans for next year, which include a partnership between SolarCity and South Park High School and a new Research Lab High School of Life Sciences and Bioinformatics near the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.
“I want them competitive. I want them innovative and aligned to emerging industries,” Cash said. “My concern is if you graduate from a high school, but you really can’t do anything to enter into the jobs that are coming, we didn’t do you a good service.”
• Extended learning. Contractually, the school day is restricted to six hours and 50 minutes, which means kids need more opportunities to learn after school, Cash said. The after-school programs offered now vary in quality from building to building.
“I want it to be more high-quality and consistent across all schools,” Cash said.
• Services for the neediest students. Buffalo already does a good job helping these children and their families, Cash said, but that needs to continue if kids are going to come to school ready to learn.
“That’s why there’s mental health clinics that we have now in 46 out of 55 schools,” he said. “That’s a big deal.”
The superintendent referred to these six as his “main reform proposals,” but said that doesn’t mean other issues will be ignored.
Cash recently rolled out the proposals to the Board of Education and thinks that, in general, there was a consensus, although some board members asked him to tweak the plan to include parent engagement as another focus.
Board Member Barbara Seals Nevergold also wanted to know how Cash planned to pay for all of this.
The board last week began delving into the budget, and projections show that efforts to lower class sizes would cost at least $39 million alone.
“Historically, the money has always come to Buffalo, but how it’s been spent hasn’t always been done in the most wise and judicious way,” Cash told The Buffalo News. “Those areas that have historically soaked money, I want to reduce those.”
It’s a clear, concise plan of attack, said School Board Member Larry Quinn.
“I think it’s good,” he said, “because if you are clear in what you are trying to do, you can base all your strategic thinking around these six principles.”
“It’s confusing in a district like this with so many moving parts,” Quinn said, “but people will follow you if they know where you are going.”
It has been several years since parents have had a clear sense of where the district is headed, said Samuel L. Radford III, president of the District Parenting Coordinating Council.
“The value of this is we don’t have to wonder what he’s thinking,” Radford said. “Agree or disagree, we have a clear indication of what he calls the ‘New Educational Bargain,’ and I think it’s good.”
“But superintendents have come before him and said the right thing,” Radford said. “It’s in the implementation where they find the challenges.”