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As BTF cries foul, Cash tries turning around 5 failing schools

One trains future welders and auto technicians.

One separated the girls and the boys.

Two are refuges for kids of Buffalo’s newest immigrants.

Another is a state champion.

Together, these five Buffalo schools – Burgard and South Park high schools, Buffalo Elementary School of Technology, Marva J. Daniels Futures Preparatory School and West Hertel Academy – share the unenviable spot of being among the first in New York to test the state’s new receivership law and meet its ultimatum: Improve, or else.

Passed last July, the law targets schools that for years have failed to meet state academic standards. The schools are placed in the hands of a receiver – in Buffalo’s case, Superintendent Kriner Cash.

The latest twist came Tuesday, when the Buffalo Teachers Federation filed a lawsuit, arguing that the receivership law violates the rights of teachers to collectively negotiate their contracts. Now, the fate of the law will be decided in court.

But at least for now, the five Buffalo schools have until the end of this school year to show “demonstrable” progress or face takeover by an outside entity.

It won’t be the first time these schools have tried to turn things around, so the question is: Why will this year be any different?

The five – and 15 other schools across the state – are targeted first because for at least a decade they’ve been labeled “persistently struggling.” Students’ standardized test scores in math and English language arts are at the bottom. Graduation rates have been consistently below 60 percent.

Faced with an ambitious timetable, these “High Five” schools, as Cash calls them, have no other choice but to embrace his control – not the School Board’s. They’ll get millions of dollars in extra state money to address the poor academic performance and the contributing factors.

How these schools perform will be watched closely. While these five may be the first on the hot seat, they are not the last. Another 20 Buffalo public schools have been tagged for receivership in subsequent rounds.

What challenges do these schools face? What are they doing to turn things around? And what do they need to be successful?

The Buffalo News peeked inside the five for answers.

Trying their BEST

A small conference room off the main office serves as the war room at Buffalo Elementary School of Technology.

Names of the “bubble” students – those on the verge of raising their test scores – hang in the room where teachers and staff routinely meet to discuss strategy. Teachers are becoming fluent in a new software package that measures student progress and guides individual instruction.

“That’s something helping us this year,” Principal Karen Piotrowski said. “Now we know exactly where they are and the instruction they need.”

Nearly 600 students are enrolled in prekindergarten through eighth grade at the school on South Division Street, where more than a third are kids learning English as a new language. Karen, Somali, Arabic, Nepali, Burmese, Swahili, Mai Mai – more than two dozen languages in all – are spoken in the school, posing a challenge for teachers trying to get these students to meet state academic standards.

BEST, as it’s called, already contracts with an outside “educational partnership organization” to serve as a school manager, part of a prior arrangement so the school could receive federal money to turn itself around.

Yet, despite that extra help, here it is tagged with receivership.

Threatened with closure, BEST simplified its game plan: rely on the data to drive instruction; focus on the emotional needs of the kids; re-engage parents; use an infusion of new technology – such as iPads – to help raise students’ scores.

The school staff has been more focused this year than in any of the 16 that Lynn Banach has been a teacher at BEST.

“I feel with the receivership we get a little more support and a little more leeway from administration to do the things we know are going to help the children in the classroom, but it’s a double-edged sword,” said Banach, a second-grade teacher. “We did a lot of planning and preparing but the implementation is extremely challenging for us.”

There is a feeling among teachers that receivership was poorly rolled out, as schools were under pressure to submit turnaround plans while at the same time implement them. Only recently did Buffalo’s “High Five” receive all the extra money that the state promised.

Some compared the process to building a plane while flying it.

“We have implemented a lot,” Banach said early last month, “but there are other aspects to our plan that we haven’t gotten to yet – and it’s January.”

Showing up is half ...

Turnout for Juliana Evans’ science class at Burgard High School is decent on this particular morning, but in the midst of a four-day lab, only half were in school for the first two days.

“Attendance is a huge issue,” said Evans, a biology teacher. “Every day is a guessing game for who’s going to be here.”

Out in the hallway, Charlene Watson, Burgard’s first-year principal, hustled students to their classrooms. Hoodies off, earbuds out, she reminded the three boys near the stairway.

The high school on Kensington Avenue has more than 500 students and a long history of offering a vocation, most recently welding, auto-tech and advanced machine tool technology, Watson explained. But these days, she acknowledged, its reputation is what needs repair.

“Historically, Burgard has been, not a neglected school, but left to stagnate,” Watson said. “And to say I have an uphill battle is an understatement.”

Inside his office, counselor Brian Woods looked over a master schedule on his wall. One of the problems, he said, is Burgard’s enrollment can turn over as much as 20 percent during the school year.

“We got two new students yesterday,” Woods said.

That transiency is a problem among Burgard’s staff, too, Woods said.

“We need the best teachers, but what incentive is there to come here?” Woods said.

While teachers echoed the skepticism about the receivership rollout, Watson is encouraged.

The school is getting the support from Cash and his team, she said. Burgard’s graduation rate rose to 49 percent last year. The school is ramping up its new partnership program with Alfred State College, which allows a select number of students into the new advanced manufacturing program to earn college credit.

In fact, Watson said, as word has spread, some 70 students applied to the high school this past year, which is unusual for Burgard. Two seniors already have been accepted to college next year.

No excuses

For Futures Preparatory, the turnaround isn’t about more programs.

It’s not about more community partners.

“We know we have what we need in the building already,” said Serena Restivo, acting principal. “We just have to get better at what we have.”

Marva J. Daniels Futures Preparatory School is on Carlton Street in the city’s Fruit Belt, renamed in 2014 for a longtime principal known for running a tight ship. Nearly 500 students are enrolled in prekindergarten through eighth grade.

Futures is one of more than two dozen Buffalo schools awarded federal grants in recent years to turn themselves around. One of its changes was placing fourth- to eighth-grade students in single-gender classrooms to tailor instruction and avoid boy-girl distractions.

“I think it works better,” said Samuel Reynolds, the school’s assistant principal.

Still, only 2 percent of third- through eighth-graders are proficient in math.

One percent is proficient in English language arts.

Nine out of 10 students at Futures are also on some form of public assistance and considered economically disadvantaged, but Restivo doesn’t use poverty as an excuse for the school’s poor performance.

“We can’t lean on that anymore. That’s the paradigm shift that needs to occur,” she said. “If we’re to have high expectations, we have high expectations for everybody – regardless.”

Under receivership, Futures has tried to be more strategic in how it uses its resources, Restivo said.

It uses in-house substitutes so classes can stay on track while teachers are participating in training. It has been more meticulous in tracking individual students and their progress. It has relied on academic coaches embedded in the building to help teachers improve instruction and curriculum.

That way, Restivo said, teachers have the tools to sustain academic growth even when administrators change.

Or when the extra funding goes away.

“It’s not if it happens,” Restivo said, “it’s when it happens.”

Teaching the transients

South Park High School has partnerships with some 19 community organizations offering students everything from tutoring to counseling.

It has a stable staff and stable leadership. The school of nearly 900 students in South Buffalo has made strides raising the graduation rate from 33 percent to 62 percent over the past decade. It even added a state football championship in the fall, the trophy proudly displayed in the school on Southside Parkway.

So how does a high school with so much going for it end up on the receivership list?

“To be honest, it was a sting for us,” said principal Theresa Schuta.

One of the problems is the high transiency among students in the district, Schuta said, and the limited number of high schools in good standing. Over the course of a school year, South Park will take in as many as 100 new students, some of whom have been kicked out of other schools or arrive with few academic credits to their name.

It’s hurting the school’s graduation rate, Schuta said, and she’s told the district as much.

“I really do feel confident Kriner Cash has heard that and has people, I feel, really working toward trying to figure it out and what way we can get relief,” Schuta said.

Still, Schuta acknowledged, South Park needs to do better.

“The biggest challenge for me as a teacher is attendance,” agreed Janine Williams, a math teacher.

If the students come to school, listen in class and do what they’re supposed to, the teachers can get them through, Williams said.

“And when you get them here, it needs to be more intrinsic,” Williams said. “How do you teach a child to want to learn? You can only make it so much fun.”

Attendance is one of the problems South Park’s staff is focusing on to help improve students’ academic performance. Under receivership, administrators at the high school are now routinely going into the neighborhood and knocking on doors of students who are chronically absent to find out why.

Students at South Park are talking about it, Williams said.

They don’t want the principal showing up on their doorstep.

Focusing on whole child

The challenges have been coming at West Hertel Academy from all sides.

Leadership in flux.

Teachers grappling with the Common Core.

Immigrants arriving on their doorstep at the corner of Hertel Avenue and Military Road.

It was overwhelming and taking a toll on the culture and climate at West Hertel, which was the first order of business for Cecelie Owens when she took over as principal two years ago.

“When I got here there was a lack of trust, a lack of honesty. Just believing that the school can be better,” Owens said. “So I felt in order for instruction to take place, the culture and climate have to be positive. You have to feel safe coming to work. You have to want to come to work.”

Owens identified teacher leaders, garnered their input and tried to get others on the same page, as the school set out to raise student performance under receivership.

It became evident, she said, that the school needed to do more to better meet the social and emotional needs of the more than 800 students enrolled in prekindergarten through eighth grade. Thirty-six percent are learning English as a new language.

“It’s very important we understand everything about that kid, especially what’s going on at home,” Owens said. “What is affecting this kid’s ability to learn or to give us their whole attention while they’re in school?”

Longtime teachers at West Hertel said they’ve seen changes for the better the past couple of years.

Teacher Monica Capozzi: “We now know what’s expected. We know what our kids are expected to do.”

Teacher Jackie Logal: “We’ve had some consistency over the past two years and consistency is so important.”

Teacher Monica Fleming: “We’re on the right track.”

A little bit of validation came several weeks ago for West Hertel when three representatives from the state Education Department visited the school. One offered the highest compliment, Owens recalled.

“I would send my own children here,” she told Owens.