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Ten Buffalo schools no longer in receivership

Three of the five Buffalo schools facing an outside takeover at the end of the year have found their way back into good standing and out from under the sole control of the superintendent.

In its annual review of schools, the state Education Department said that Buffalo Elementary School of Technology and Burgard and South Park high schools have made enough progress over two consecutive years to be taken off the state’s receivership list by June 30, school officials announced Friday.

That will put the schools back under the authority of the Board of Education, as opposed to the direct supervision of Superintendent Kriner Cash.

Seven other Buffalo schools in the second round of receivership also were removed from the list.

They are: Bilingual Center on Elk Street; Harriet Ross Tubman on Stanton Street; Highgate Heights on Highgate Avenue; McKinley High School; Early Childhood Center School 17 on West Delavan Avenue; North Park Middle Academy on Parkside Avenue; and Waterfront Elementary School.

Waterfront was the only school in the city that jumped from the lowest rating – priority – to one in good standing. The state also removed Waterfront from its receivership list.

That’s a long way from 2012, when the state threatened to close the school on Fourth Street.

“We were living on the edge as much as we could be,” said Principal David Hills.

At the same time, five other schools will now be taken over by Cash during the next school year because their performance failed to meet the minimum state requirements.

Those schools are: Alternative High School at 44 on South Park Avenue; Bennett Park Monetessori School on Clinton Street; Dr. Antonia Pantoja Community School of Excellence on West Avenue; Arthur O. Eve School of Distinction School 61 on Leroy Avenue; and School 82 on Easton Avenue.

As a whole, however, school officials were pleased with the reviews out of Albany on Friday, as Buffalo – which has a total of 55 schools – increased the number of schools in good standing from 15 to 20. The district also lowered the number of schools under receivership from 25 to 20.

“So that’s the great news,” Cash said during a press conference at City Hall on Friday. “It really is, in a district that has been much maligned for a long time.

“But having said that,” Cash said, “we still have a long way to go. We still have a lot of work to do.”

The review by the state is part of its complicated accountability system that has morphed over the years in response to federal requirements and mandates that have changed with the political leadership.

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 indicator of how well a school is doing or how many students are considered proficient on state tests, but 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.

This year, in particular, is confusing because of the state’s new receivership law – a totally separate standard – which allowed the superintendent to make changes at receivership schools without the approval of the School Board or negotiating with the union. Under receivership, the schools have a specified period of time to show progress or face takeover by an outside entity.

The state approved the law and announced the schools on the receivership list last year, before the most recent test scores were made available that showed some schools were making improvement.

“They shouldn’t have been on there in the first place,” said Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation. “It just shows the insanity.”

The news from Friday now raises questions about whether Cash will be able to proceed with changes at the schools taken off the receivership list.

The district is also facing a lawsuit by the New York State United Teachers aimed at the changes Cash wanted to make at those schools, including extending the school day and requiring extra teacher training.

At Waterfront, Hills said the changes come after years of work after previous state designations.

Hills attributed the improved status to a dedicated effort by his staff and students that started with a culture shift. Staff members wanted to create an environment where students felt safe learning, and were encouraged to reach their full potential.

That included launching programs that reinforced and rewarded positive behaviors, rather than penalizing students for bad ones. Suspensions are now about a quarter what they were when Hills first started about five years ago.

The school also created arts enrichment programs for students, including an annual school musical, and partnered with community organizations to offer additional opportunities. That may have contributed to an increase in attendance. In December, the school had its highest attendance on record.

Hills assembled teams of teachers to take on leadership roles, set priorities and help determine strategies for improving student outcomes.

“The truth is it’s a million little things that all combine to make it happen,” he said. “It’s taken incredibly hard work by a talented, dedicated and energetic staff that is willing to come in every day and take one more step forward. And ultimately, it’s not the teachers who take the test. Some of our students face obstacles to doing well on that test and decide that they’re going to work hard to transcend those challenges.”