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School district can improve diversity by preparing all students for success

Buffalo school officials are facing a delicate but important balancing act that requires them to attract more minority students to City Honors School without lowering the standards that make the criteria-based school so attractive. When they do that – and it must be their goal – they will have fixed many of the worst problems that plague this large and troubled district.

The district is under orders from the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights to eliminate unfair barriers that made it difficult for minority students even to apply to the largely white school, let alone gain entrance. That those barriers existed is beyond dispute and, under pressure, the district has taken some steps to dismantle them.

Today, instead of assessing applicants based on several different scoring criteria, decisions are based on an aggregate of those criteria, which now exclude the subjectivity of a teacher’s evaluation. Yet the changes in the evaluation process did nothing to add diversity to the student body. In fact, the number of African-American students forecast for this fall has declined.

Obviously, problems remain. First, the district needs to do more to encourage minority students to apply to the school. That’s the first – and easiest – step in ensuring that all high-performing students have a chance to attend City Honors.

More fundamentally, it needs to do a better job of preparing all students to have the best possible chance of succeeding in those applications. That’s the more difficult problem – a Gordian knot that is devilishly entwined with Buffalo’s high rate of poverty.

It would be self-defeating to lower the school’s academic standards. The very purpose of the school is to ensure that the district’s high achievers have the opportunity to thrive in a challenging environment. To make it something less would render a disservice to all concerned – the students already in the school and those who might be admitted according to those lesser standards.

Significantly improving the chances of those students to enter the school is a years-long process, maybe decades long. But it has to begin, not simply to give more students access to City Honors, but to improve the education that Buffalo delivers to all of its students.

That’s the gold standard, and it applies across the district. It’s what will help to break cycles of poverty while attracting young families that are today reluctant to send their children to Buffalo’s public schools. But it won’t happen quickly enough to serve students whose lives could be changed today by attending a school such as City Honors. Other options could help.

Opening a second such school would immediately expand the number of slots available to Buffalo students. Whether that would notably increase the proportion of minority students attending is uncertain, but it could. At a minimum, it would serve more students who qualify for access to the school but are nonetheless excluded.

Given additional space, there might even be an argument for some kind of provisional entrance for students who, as the president of the District Parent Coordinating Council says, fall short of the criteria by only a small amount.

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

It’s a balancing act. As a matter both of morality and self-interest, Buffalo needs to ensure that its minority students get a fair shake and that they are prepared to take advantage of the opportunities that arise. At the same time, the district and its students have a compelling interest in setting and maintaining high standards.

It’s no easy task, but it’s one that should define the job of School Board members who, like the students they serve, must insist upon success.