Kriner Cash arrived in Buffalo in the summer of 2015 to lead a school district in disarray.
A revolving door of superintendents had preceded him. Graduation rates hovered around 50 percent for years. Almost half of the district’s 56 schools were failing. And the teachers had been working without a new contract for almost 12 years.
So when the reform-minded candidate from Memphis came to Buffalo on the recommendation of the state Education Commissioner, expectations were huge.
Now a year and half into his job as Buffalo schools superintendent, Cash points to a list of accomplishments - but says he is not finished.
In a State of Buffalo Schools-type of interview with Buffalo News reporters and editors, Cash ticked off what he considers his successes, including:
• Signing a three-year, $98.8 million contract with the Buffalo Teachers Federation.
• Improving graduation rates from 57 percent to 63 percent over the past year.
• Cutting the number of receivership schools - schools the state deems to be failing - from 25 to 15.
• Launching 13 community schools with collegiate, corporate and health care partners in high-risk neighborhoods.
Cash said he came to Buffalo to reform its schools, and his job is not done yet. Graduation needs to reach 70 percent within two years and all schools should be off the state’s watch list, he said.
But in order to finish the job, he said the district needs substantially more money from the state and from the city, plus a school board that does not go off-target on side issues.
“I need all of them to be with me on the work,” he said of the often squabbling school board members.
“They don’t have to like me or agree with me on everything but I do want them to agree on a program of work that we can altogether work on,” he said.
If they don’t?
“I’m here five years tops, and if this board doesn’t straighten up, I’m going before that,” he said. “But I’m here five years tops. I think it’s enough time to get this work done. And if I don’t get it done, I’ll leave. I don’t need anybody to tell me to leave … But I’m telling you, we will get this district in better shape than it was in just another year or two, and then I’ll finish it off and get it ready for succession management in my last two years.”
If keeping bickering board members focused on classrooms and student performance seems like a tough job, getting more money from the city should also present challenges.
While the state each year comes up with additional millions and with the federal government provides about 90 percent of the school district’s nearly $800 million budget, Buffalo city taxpayers have provided a flat $70.3 million each year for the past decade. Cash wants the city to increase its contribution by $8.5 million, at least for the next few years.
And he wants the state to kick in $20 million above the $13.6 million increase in state aid that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo recently proposed for Buffalo Public Schools in his 2017 budget.
In his sit-down with The Buffalo News, Cash talked about other successes, obstacles and some plans for the future:
• Community schools: These schools are aimed at helping students and their families, and are designed to attract pupils from the immediate neighborhoods around them. So far, 13 community schools have been established in the city.
“Community schools are at the epicenter of our reform work here in Buffalo now,” Cash said.
Through various business and corporate partners, these schools provide services like health and legal clinics, social services, after-school and Saturday programs, parent programs as well as adult and community education programs. The strategy has been running so well that it has become a national model, Cash said.
• Graduation rates: Early results show that graduation rates went up six percentage points – from 57 percent to 63 percent – in the last year, Cash said.
He wants that figure to get to 70 percent in the next two years, while acknowledging that is ambitious for Buffalo.
“You were down in the 50s just a little while ago,” he said. “Some schools are well above that, but some schools are well below that, and I want to get it more even across the system with 70 percent and plus for all our high schools. You have to shoot high and hard and fast or you’ll fall into the malaise of just whatever, whatever, whatever.”
• Receivership schools: The state’s receivership law gave the superintendent unprecedented powers to help turn around the 25 most struggling schools in the district. They had one year to show measurable progress in key areas, such as student achievement, graduation rates, attendance and suspension rates or face takeover by an outside entity.
Using the special management rights under receivership law, Cash moved 21 principals and whole support teams from the receivership schools because they were weak, he said. He also moved 22 teachers involuntarily from those schools. And he hired 60 new teachers in those schools based on qualifications, not seniority.
The number of receivership schools dipped from 25 to 15 under Cash’s administration. And of those remaining, 10 have demonstrated improvement in meeting 2016 benchmarks, Cash said.
• Early childhood education: Youngsters entering Buffalo schools for the first time typically know 600 to 700 words, when they should know more than 3,000 words, Cash said. Given that, the district will continue to improve its early childhood pipeline to the third-grade, he said.
If students don’t improve in the first three years, he said, they are likely to fall even further behind and eventually drop out of school because they can’t catch up.
“So a 6-year-old needs to be reading 6,000 vocabulary words, knowing them, recognizing them and using them in speech,” he said.
• Extraordinary needs: Thousands of Buffalo students face extreme poverty, homelessness, trauma from domestic, child or sexual abuse, mental illness and other obstacles. These obstacles often result in chronic absenteeism.
“We have the most needy children in New York State,” Cash said. “Ninety percent of our children are extraordinary needs children.”
Violence in their neighborhoods is another factor. A recent youth risk behavior survey found that 35 percent of Buffalo high school students who responded said that they had seen someone shot, stabbed, or beaten in their neighborhood.
“That even surprised me,” Cash said.
To cope with what students are dealing with outside of schools, he said he has focused on trauma training for teachers.
“You just can’t come out of Buffalo State College or University at Buffalo ... or Trocaire, Canisius with the formalized training and then not understand what our young people actually need, who they are,” he said.
• Cultural diversity training: Buffalo is the most culturally and linguistically diverse school district in the state, even more so than New York City, Cash said.
“And that’s from the commissioner’s office,” he said. “That’s not me anecdotally repeating it.”
Of the school district’s 33,278 students, 80 percent are minority, including 60 percent African-Americans. More than 80 foreign languages are spoken, and 5,077 students are English language learners. All are reasons why teachers' cultural awareness is important, he said.
Under the new teachers contract, the school district got a longer school day and more professional development and training for teachers.
Teachers have gone through Cultural and Linguistic Responsive training to alleviate any disconnect that teachers may have with students coming into their classrooms, Cash said.
Such teacher “training is really, really impressive … And it’s especially effective for our ELL students and for our African-American and Hispanic students,” he said.
• New teacher project: Teachers have been left to their own devices for a long time, Cash said, because of inconsistent leadership and a lack of a program of work.
That is why he is focusing more on instruction in the classroom, more professional development for teachers, and he’s bringing in the New Teacher Project to take a look at teachers in the classroom.
New Teacher Project has offered to come to Buffalo on a pro-bono basis. It will go into eight schools and look at student work, course rigor, teacher practices to see if it is strong enough to get students into higher education, Cash said.
“As we speak, we are looking at course rigor. We are looking at every teacher assessment. ...We’re looking at how teachers use their time. We’re going into examining every aspect of classroom instruction,” Cash said. “So we have to get deeper, stronger on what effective teaching looks like.”