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Buffalo School Board tries again on diversity issue at City Honors

Enrollment at City Honors School has been lopsidedly white for years, prompting the federal government to step in recently and order changes in the admissions procedures to ensure that black students are not the victims of discrimination.

The school’s most recent admissions data, however, shows that not only did the changes fail to add more diversity to the student body for the coming year, the number of black students projected at City Honors actually decreased.

Now, it’s back to the drawing board, and the Buffalo School Board on Wednesday signed off on new changes for the next round of admissions, including automatically considering any child who takes the admissions test and requiring nondistrict students to provide proof of residency.

“We’re not quite there with the issue of diversity,” Superintendent Kriner Cash said. “The way we address that is by increasing diversity in the applicant pool.”

The difficulty striking a more even racial balance at City Honors underscores a key challenge for the district – creating equity in a segregated city where nearly half of children live in poverty, most of whom are black and Hispanic. Typically, those children are heavily concentrated in schools with large numbers of poor students.

Research consistently reinforces a correlation between poverty and school performance, and in Buffalo, the result is an achievement gap between white and black students.

Although about 27 percent of white students meet state reading standards, just 7 percent of black children are deemed proficient. The gap is just as wide for math, and when looking at children considered economically disadvantaged compared with those who are not. Closing that gap will largely depend on reaching all students early in their academic years, providing them the support they need to be successful – and perhaps to ultimately earn a seat at a criteria-based school such as City Honors.

Solution seen as ‘more of the same’

“They’re really chipping away at this thing and not getting to the heart of what it means to live in one of the most segregated cities in the country,” said Samuel L. Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council, which filed the civil rights complaint. “Their solution is more of the same, and their solution basically ensures that the white and wealthy in our district have the best opportunities.”

The parent group has called on the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene and require the district to make more drastic changes that might yield better results.

School district officials acknowledge that addressing the lopsided enrollment at City Honors means delving into some of the system’s most deep-seated problems and facing the question of whether the Buffalo district is preparing its students – all of them – to succeed academically.

“When you’ve addressed those barriers to admissions, you then have to ask yourself the tough question,” said administrator Will Keresztes, who has been handling the district’s response to the civil rights complaint. “Have schools and parents adequately prepared students to meet the admissions criteria?”

Most measures suggest that they haven’t.

The civil rights issue has been going on for two years after the parent group filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights alleging discrimination in the admissions for criteria-based schools such as City Honors and Olmsted 156. City Honors has become the focal point of the complaint because Olmsted historically has more closely represented the racial makeup of the district.

In the past, entry into the two schools was based on admissions and state tests; grade-point average; a teacher recommendation and attendance.

The district tweaked the process this year by allowing students to take the test at their home school, rather than traveling to City Honors on a weekend. It also eliminated a requirement that students obtain a certain score on the admissions and standardized tests.

Although those changes resulted in more students taking the admissions tests, they did not result in more minority students being admitted.

Projected enrollment for City Honors and Olmsted next year shows that the percentage of minorities will remain virtually unchanged. In fact, the percentage of black students enrolled next year is expected to drop slightly.

Black students comprise 49 percent of the district’s enrollment, but are projected to account for 16 percent at City Honors next year, down from 18 percent in this school year.

“City Honors continues to really evade our expectations for diversity,” Keresztes said. “We’re concerned not only about the flatness of the numbers, but that they continue to be low.”

Some parents and a civil rights expert hired by the district to offer recommendations suggested more drastic changes, such as setting aside a certain number of seats for minority students.

Those changes, however, were met with concerns that giving preferential treatment to a certain group could result in a lowering of standards.

Others have pushed for a second City Honors, which Keresztes said the district is open to consider, although there are concerns that it would not be any more diverse than the first.

To admit applicants for the next school year, the district used a rubric that assigned students points and ranked them. Those at the top of the ranking were offered a seat.

Radford believes that many minority students who applied performed well on the measures the district used, but just didn’t land high enough on the ranking to gain admission. He also believes that the performance differences between those who made the cut and those who did not are minimal.

“What’s more important – a small fraction of a point, or having a more diverse school that all students would benefit from?” Radford said.

Proof of residency to be required

It is not clear whether the group of students who ranked just below those who got a seat was any more diverse than those who gained admittance.

The district has been reluctant to make the drastic changes that Radford and other parents want, opting instead for more procedural steps aimed at eliminating barriers in the admissions process.

For the next school year, that will include considering any child who takes the admissions test. This past year, parents of students who took the test had to submit a formal application, which district officials now say was unnecessary.

The district also will eliminate the use of state standardized tests and start requiring non-Buffalo Public Schools students to provide proof of residency when they take the exam.

Still, whether those changes approved Wednesday will make any more difference than the ones this year is doubtful, and a look at which students typically gain admittance reinforces the point that most Buffalo schools are not adequately preparing students.

In a typical year, Keresztes said, about 60 percent of incoming fifth-graders come from outside the Buffalo Public Schools – charters, private schools, the suburbs and even Canada. Students living outside the district have been allowed to take the admissions test and if they get a seat are expected to move into the city. In the coming year, families will be required to show proof of residency before their child can take the test.

“Unfortunately, our flagship high school has been acting for years like it is some kind of small Ivy,” Cash said. “That’s how it’s been operating. Some set-asides, some family members, special this. And then we go to Canada and we go to Williamsville and get kids. All over the Great Lakes, they can come here. That, to me, is just completely antithetical to what a good public school is all about. Where is the Buffalo public school kid who lives here prioritized in all this?”

Many of the rest of those admitted come from Olmsted 64, although those students do not quite make up the majority of those coming from within the system.

That means a relative few are coming from other schools within the district.

Keresztes said district leaders believe programs that will be launched as part of Cash’s New Education Bargain will address the deficiencies at its schools. That includes lower class sizes, a renewed focus on reading in the early grade levels and community schools, which will offer students and families additional support.

Ultimately, those programs are critical not just to better prepare students to meet the City Honors standards but also give them a better chance to succeed – regardless of where they attend high school.

“There is a whole market of parents who are not satisfied with our schools,” Keresztes said. “This isn’t just about City Honors.”