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Some Buffalo schools showing improvement, though bar is low

Buffalo began last year with 25 schools – nearly half the district – on a state watch list that threatened them with takeover if their academic performance didn’t improve in a hurry.

A year later, that picture doesn’t look nearly as dire.

The state removed 10 of the schools from the list in June, after they showed two years of progress and their status was upgraded.

Ten others have shown some gains and appear headed in the right direction.

Four more are on the fence, although two of those are to be phased out over the next couple of years, anyway.

So far, only one school has failed to show "demonstrable" improvement.

In all, two-thirds of the Buffalo schools on the list made the cut their first year, according to composite scores from the state. The same proportion also performed better on state tests in English language arts, although just under half improved in math.

But there is a caveat: The bar was set low the first year. It is expected to get  tougher for the schools this year and beyond. In fact, almost half the schools got new leadership – as well as a few new teachers – as Superintendent Kriner Cash moved staff in preparation for the task ahead.

That’s a snapshot of how Buffalo is faring more than a year after the state passed the controversial receivership law to force long-struggling schools across New York to turn around in a year to two or face being taken over by outside management.

Buffalo hasn’t gotten to that point. Performance this year at its 15 receivership schools will determine whether independent managers need to step in.

"I feel the trajectory is good, but I’m never content," Cash said. "I look at all of them needing to push the envelope for children and not letting your foot off the pedal."

The receivership law - proposed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and passed by state lawmakers in 2015 - gave superintendents sole control of these targeted schools along with unprecedented powers to turn them around. That includes the ability to bypass the union contract and involuntarily transfer teachers.

Proponents say it has been just what Cash needed to jump-start the struggling Buffalo district.

"The key tool was receivership," said Samuel L. Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council.

Critics question how big a role receivership will ultimately play in the end.

A lot has changed since the law passed. The state has hit the reset button on standardized testing and agreed to review the Common Core learning standards.

A moratorium was placed on the use of state test scores as a component in teacher evaluations.

Meanwhile, the federal government is in the midst of redefining the educational accountability system to determine which schools are doing well and which are struggling. And all that could change, by the way, under the next president, who has pledged less federal intervention in public education.

"When you look at that picture from tree level, receivership starts to lose whatever little credibility it had," said Carl Korn, a spokesman for New York State United Teachers, which called for the repeal of the receivership law and spearheaded a failed court challenge.

"The winds have clearly shifted," he said of efforts to slow down some of the reforms.

Most make the grade

Schools that are among the bottom 5 percent in the state for three consecutive years are placed in receivership. They can be removed once they meet certain performance targets for two straight years and their status is upgraded.

The schools are scored on weighted calculations ranging from 0 to 100 and based on several indicators, such as student proficiency in math and English language arts, attendance, graduation rates, school safety and suspension rates.

Performance targets were set artificially low for schools during the first year of receivership, requiring "demonstrable" improvement of 1 percentage point on key measures.

A 3 percentage point improvement on those indicators is expected for this year.

A progress report recently released by the state was generally favorable for Buffalo.

It showed:

• Nine receivership schools met their performance targets last year, scoring at least a 67 percent on the state index that combines all of the individual performance indicators. They were: Dr. Lydia T. Wright School of Excellence; D’Youville Porter Campus School; Hamlin Park Claude & Ouida Clapp Academy; Harvey Austin School; Herman Badillo Bilingual Academy; International Preparatory School; Lafayette High School; Riverside Institute of Technology; and West Hertel Academy.

One other, Marva J. Daniels Futures Preparatory School, fell below that threshold but appealed to the state and won, bringing the total to 10.

• Four schools showed marginal performance last year, scoring between 40 and 66 percent. They were: Bennett High School; Dr. Charles Drew Science Magnet School; East High School; and Frank A. Sedita School.

Their scores fell in the "appeal range," which means they – like Futures – would need to submit additional information to the state showing that extenuating circumstances prevented the school from being able to meet all of its performance goals.

Meanwhile, Bennett and East are being phased out.

• One school – Build Academy on Fougeron Street – failed to meet its targets, scoring below 40 percent.

• On a key indicator, ELA, 11 of the 15 schools met their target; in math, it was 7 of the 15.

East made the most improvement in both ELA and math.

 "I’m positive. I’m optimistic and I’m encouraged," Cash said, "but the schools that come off the list, I don’t neglect. I put even more focus on those because they’re fragile."

Staff changes imposed

Cash said his first order of business was to make sure the schools had strong leadership. Among the 15 receivership schools, Cash changed seven principals, 11 assistant principals and two deans, who serve under the building principal.

"I don’t get in and micromanage," Cash said, "but what I do is have two meetings a week with my associate superintendents and then my associates go out and inspect what I expect. The principals aren’t left to their own devices."

Cash also has the ability in receivership schools to bypass the union contract and move teachers involuntarily. That hasn’t been widespread practice during the first year of receivership, but is a tool to help change school culture.

"I think we’ve used it," Cash said. "There has been, if you add them up, 25 or 26 total across the system, which is huge."

Getting off the list

West Hertel was among the first in the state to be tagged with the receivership designation. The pre-K through eighth-grade school on Hertel Avenue at Military Road was one of the handful across the state to receive state dollars, because it was among those struggling the longest.

"I looked at receivership as a blessing," said Cecelie Owens, West Hertel principal. "I looked at it as something that I needed. It brought us a lot of resources that we needed to turn around."

The additional funding has bought new technology, added staff and provided more training for teachers.

"I feel really great, because we made our growth target as a first-year receivership school," Owens said. "The staff is on board. They’re excited. We celebrated with a school dance."

International Preparatory School on Fourteenth Street – serving students in grades fifth through 12th – didn’t receive extra state funding but has made progress, nonetheless, particularly in boosting graduation rates, said Principal Carlos Alvarez Jr.

Alvarez pointed to three keys: using individual data to track student progress; professional development for teachers; and holding students, teachers and parents more accountable.

"It’s an entire school community approach," Alvarez said. "We have to work together to reach a goal. It’s not one segment that’s working harder than another. It literally is a team approach – the teachers, the kids, the parents and families. That’s the only way."


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