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‘New’ Buffalo schools draw kids focused on tech fields

The stately, brick high school on a hill overlooking Main Street has been part of the landscape since Lewis J. Bennett donated the property nearly a century ago. ¶ But Tuesday marked the beginning of a “new” Bennett High School, which is part of a larger plan to overhaul several of Buffalo’s under-performing schools. Each school will have a key ingredient in the turn-around plan: an area of study that interests students. ¶ • Computer science at Bennett. ¶ • Solar energy at South Park High School. ¶ • Public safety and administration at East High School. ¶ So far, the response has been good as the district plans to launch five new schools and/or programs in September. ¶ In three of the schools focusing on burgeoning high-tech fields – Bennett, South Park and a new bioinformatics lab – the district had three times as many applicants as it has available spots for this fall. At East, there were roughly 40 percent more applicants than seats. ¶ “You have to develop programs that young people find motivating,

find interesting, and then they have to put in the effort to be successful,” said Superintendent Kriner Cash, who made the schools part of his New Education Bargain. “That’s what this new program is all about.”

Cash stood on the steps of Bennett on Tuesday with a few dozen people for a ceremonial ribbon-cutting to mark a new beginning for one of Buffalo’s storied schools.

Bennett – which is being phased out next year with the graduation of its last remaining class – will become the Computing Academy of Technological Sciences at Bennett with a focus on introducing students to fields in computer science and software engineering.

It starts in September with a ninth grade class of 102 students.

At the new Bennett, courses will include animation, gaming, coding, computer hardware, mobile-application design, digital design, web design and programming.

“All things that our young people are interested in,” Cash said. “They already spend 13 hours a day on Facebook, on their phones, they know this stuff. We now want to tailor it, channel it and get them ready for exciting, new, well-paying jobs that they can bring their families – perhaps for the first time – into the middle class and beyond.”

Bennett is one of five schools to be getting an academic makeover next school year.

SolarCity and Erie Community College will partner with South Park High School, which will offer a program on advanced manufacturing of solar panels.

Lafayette High School will become an international school for students who arrived from another country within the past four years, a growing segment of the district’s enrollment.

At East High School, the focus will be on career paths into law, public safety, government and public administration.

Meanwhile, the University at Buffalo, SUNY Buffalo State and Empire Genomics will partner with the district to create the Bioinformatics and Life Sciences Research Lab. The program will be located at Math, Science and Technology Preparatory School on East Delavan Avenue.

The high school redesigns are part of the superintendent’s vision for improving the troubled school district. Not only does Cash expect better academic performance because students are interested in the coursework, he also foresees these new schools and programs providing more high-quality high school options for Buffalo students.

“It’s going to close the gap between equity and quality that we have among our high schools – among the criterion schools and the traditional high schools,” Cash said outside of Bennett on Tuesday. “You’ve got to close that gap. It can’t be a tale of two school systems.”

The district has been encouraged by the response.

Nearly 300 students entering ninth grade in the fall applied for 102 open seats at the new Bennett, said James Weimer Jr., associate superintendent for school leadership.

At East, there were 142 applicants for 102 available seats; at South Park, 183 applicants for 48 available seats in the solar energy program. Nearly 200 students applied for 60 seats in the research laboratory program for bioinformatics and life sciences. Only Lafayette had more seats than applicants for its new program, with 92 students applying for 105 openings.

Acceptance letters were scheduled to be sent out to students this week.

“You have the opportunity with a small group of ninth graders to really create a sound culture in a school from the very beginning,” Weimer said.

The first year of the Bennett program will be under the direction of Susan Doyle, the principal of Middle Early College High School, which shares space in the school. A search is under way for a new Bennett principal who has expertise in the computer science field, school officials said.

In the meantime, individual ribbon-cuttings to mark the opening of the other four new schools and programs are scheduled for the coming weeks.

But on Tuesday, it was all about Bennett, and school alumni were singled out for their commitment to saving the school and helping bring about its evolution. Other discussions the past couple of years had involved turning Bennett into a charter school.

Nicole Baker, the first student accepted as a student at the new Bennett, shared the honor of cutting the ceremonial ribbon Tuesday.

Baker, 13, an eighth-grader at Grabiarz School of Excellence, originally applied to McKinley; but when she didn’t get accepted, her father, Marvin, suggested she check out what’s happening at Bennett.

Father and daughter got a good feeling about the program during an open house last month, where they were intrigued by the demonstrations of computer animation and 3-D printing.

“We liked it. It will be good for her,” Marvin Baker said. “I told her if she got into this program, I’d get her a new Mac computer.”