School starts Tuesday for Buffalo Public Schools students, who will find several new programs and opportunities awaiting them:
• Classes will be smaller in the lower grades in some of the district’s most struggling schools.
• School buildings will stay open two hours later for after-school enrichment, offering students a chance to get extra help with their academic work.
• And 13 community schools will be up and running, to provide services and outside resources for students, their families and residents of the surrounding neighborhoods.
In Kriner Cash’s second year as Buffalo superintendent, he says these are just some of the changes he is implementing in his reform agenda.
“We’re going to provide (students) with the opportunity to do more,” Cash said. “We’re going to have our schools open longer. We’re going to bring all the services and supports to” students and their families.
Here are some of the other innovations students and parents can expect to see when the 2016-17 school year starts Tuesday:
• Five new high schools or programs with specialized offerings – including a partnership with the University at Buffalo – beginning with the freshmen classes this year;
• iPads for all students in pre-K through second grade and access to tablets and laptop computers for students beginning in second grade;
• Six new translators for the top foreign languages spoken in the district, as multilingual education reform continues.
“We’re going allow you to get online and go as far as you want to go as quickly as you want to go through our online course menu and our virtual schools and our other technology upgrades that we’re bringing in from pre-K through grade 12,” Cash said.
The improvements follow a year in which the superintendent said he has been reaching out to various partners, re-engaging with stakeholders and assembling his leadership team from within after he found few options outside the district.
“When I was going through the work of finding a quality team, there wasn’t a long line of folk to come into all these positions. So my position has always been, if you can’t upgrade, then you have to coach up, you have to teach up and you have to develop people into the work they need to do,” he said.
“I feel that the people that are in these positions now, they’re upgrades from where we were,” Cash said of his administrators.
Those key people include: Darren Brown, chief of staff; Anne Botticelli, chief academic officer; David Mauricio, chief of strategic alignment and innovation; Will Keresztes, chief of intergovernmental affairs, planning and community engagement; Eric Rosser, associate superintendent of student support; and Elena Cala, district spokesperson.
They and other administrators developed many of this year’s reforms, including:
Smaller class sizes: There will be 18 to 20 students in 20 of the district’s most at-risk kindergarten and first-grade classrooms, to start, down from the 27 to 36 pupils that some early education classrooms have had, Cash said. Reduced class sizes will be phased in over the coming years.
In some of the district’s schools in good standing, class sizes will max out at 25 or 26 to accommodate school choice and transfers.
“Parents have a right to go to a higher-performing school by the law, so we need to keep a few more seats open in those schools and then we will have an assistant in those higher classes,” Cash said.
After-school programs: Schools will be open after classes end for two hours a day Monday through Friday starting in mid-October, Botticelli said. The program has three components: academic enrichment, emotional and behavioral support and health and wellness. Transportation and meals or snacks will be provided.
Community schools: Many school buildings empty out at around 2 or 3 p.m., but 13 schools will be converted into community schools, with some staying open as late as 7 p.m. on weekdays and for two Saturdays each month from 9 a.m. to noon.
School libraries also will stay open longer, there will be learning stations for students, and parents can take advantage of services such as adult learning, immigration and legal services and help with voter registration, Rosser said. District officials surveyed about 1,800 community members for feedback on what they wanted to see in the centers.
“We’ll be responding to their identified needs,” Cash said.
This past July, the Board of Education awarded Say Yes Buffalo the contract to manage the community schools project, which will include the hiring of a project manager, two zone leaders and nine community school facilitators at a cost of $832,000. The money comes from $12.5 million from the state to introduce the community school model at East, South Park, Bennett and Lafayette high schools as well as at Harvey Austin School, West Hertel Academy, Southside Academy, Highgate Heights, Herman Badillo, Hamlin Park, Lovejoy Discovery, Marva J. Daniels Preparatory and Westminster Community Charter School.
Innovative high schools: Five new innovative high schools and programs will provide students with more high-quality options.
The schools will be launched with freshmen classes of about 75 to 120 students, depending on the school. At the new Bennett, for example, the starting class for the computer science program has about 120 students, Cash said.
At the new research lab for the bioinformatics and life sciences program, students will be on UB’s South Campus one day a week, beginning in early or mid-October, Mauricio said.
“I thought it was a couple of years out, but they upped the timeframe for us,” Cash said. And UB has committed to saving space on its new downtown Medical Campus to locate the new high school.
“That’s a big deal,” the superintendent said, because it means students will be able to study alongside people in the medical corridor, on cancer and diabetes and blood pressure, heart disease.
“They’re going to be “studying with the same tools and technology that the people at Roswell Park (Cancer Institute) and UB Medical School study with.” Cash said. The school will grow into a student population of about 400.
There also is a new partnership between SolarCity and South Park High School; a new focus on law, public safety, government and public administration at East High School; and an international school at Lafayette High School.
New technology: The district’s three-year technology plan recently won state approval. Highlights include iPads for all students in pre-K through second grade, as well as access to tablets and laptop computers for students beginning in the second grade while they are in class. Money from the Smart Schools Bond Act helped pay for the upgrades to the former technology plan that was in place since 2013.
Multi-language reform: The district has hired six new cultural specialists to translate six of the top foreign languages spoken in the schools: Karen, Swahili, Somali, Burmese, Nepali and Arabic. Along with Spanish, they are the seven top languages spoken by 86 percent of the 4,000 to 5,000 English language learners in the district, Cash said.
“Keep in mind that population is growing, and so we need to be really, really ready to take on and meet the needs of that population,” he said.
Two new high schools are addressing the burgeoning ELL population. Lafayette High School – one of the new innovative high schools – is specifically designed to help multilingual students. The other is the Newcomers Academy, which is bursting at the seams, Cash said.
“We may have to duplicate or replicate that program,” he said.
In addition, district administrators have conducted training with principals and teachers about the kinds of anxieties and stresses ELL students face.
“When you don’t know the language at all, when you don’t know the culture at all, there’s a different kind of teaching that needs to happen instead of just talking out to the student,” Cash said.
Other priorities: Special-education reform and hiring more special-education teachers top the list of other priorities, Cash said, calling this “one of those areas which is very messy and complex” and a problem not just in Buffalo, which has been out of compliance for some time.
“So when I say reform, it’s about bringing in hard-to-fill teaching needs, making sure that we work with our strategic partners,” he said, pointing to Teach for America as an example of a partner that has helped the district secure teachers for hard-to-fill positions in special and bilingual education.
Meanwhile, the district still needs to come up with creative ways to combat chronic absenteeism and get more kids to come to school.
While the lure of learning should be enough to motivate kids to show up, it isn’t working, the superintendent said. So the district must explore ways to get the attendance rates up.
Ideas include age-appropriate incentives as well as lawn signs, for instance, stressing to parents the importance of getting their children to school, an idea he said came from some local Assembly members.