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Some parents cry foul over City Honors admissions process

The admissions process to one of the best schools in Buffalo has changed to force more racial diversity and ensure the system does not  discriminate against minority students.

But are the new rules discriminating against students from charter and private schools?

That’s the contention of some parents upset after learning more about how the Buffalo Public Schools decided to allocate some open seats at City Honors School for next school year.

The policy, quietly passed by the Board of Education in February, gives preference to Buffalo Public Schools students when it comes to determining who gets a spot at the distinguished school in the case of a tie.

“We’re being punished because we selected a charter school or a private school?" said Adrienne Romanowicz, the mother of a fourth-grader at Tapestry Charter School. "How is that fair?”

"Why wouldn't my child be equally as eligible?" said Claire Waldron, a Buffalo parent at St. Mark School. "Nobody is sending back my tax dollars."

[RELATED: Diversity still a challenge at City Honors, despite recent efforts]

A complaint to the U.S. Department of Education alleging discrimination in admissions at City Honors forced the district to make a series of changes, but the latest development has private school parents talking about a legal challenge of their own.

It underscores the tension and complexity in achieving more equity at City Honors, not just in its racial makeup – the school is 41 percent minority in a district that is 80 percent minority – but in access for all students in the city.

Historically, the majority of open spots at City Honors have gone to students testing in from private or charter schools, district officials said.

This year, that was reversed, and the district is making no apologies for giving preference to Buffalo Public Schools students.

"It's not our priority to create an enclave for private school parents who only feel comfortable in just one public school," said Will Keresztes, chief of intergovernmental affairs, planning and community engagement.

"We respect and appreciate the views of private school parents. But BPS parents who enrolled in district schools entrusted their children's education to us," Keresztes said. "We're going to give them the preference they deserve for last remaining seats."

The district this year used three measures in determining entrance to City Honors: grade point average, attendance and an admissions test.

Those three factors were used to compile a cumulative score of 20 possible points for each student. Spots at City Honors were handed out by rank.

But in the case of tie scores, preference was given to Buffalo Public Schools students, who were entered into a lottery for the remaining seats.

"This preference has no impact for the vast majority of seats which are available to all applicants and awarded in order of the ranking," Keresztes said.

In fact, of the 154 seats available next year at City Honors, 128 – or 83 percent of the spots – were based on a student's cumulative score, district figures show.

Twenty-six slots, or 17 percent of the seats, were awarded by lottery.

"It's a small percentage," said Larry Scott, co-chairman of the Buffalo Parent-Teacher Organization. "If a parent is perceiving that as being unfair, I can see that to some extent; but I personally feel strongly that if a parent has invested in Buffalo Public Schools, then the opportunities should be offered to them first."

The only scenario that worked out differently was in the case of the eighth-grade lottery, where seats were awarded to three Buffalo students who did not attend a district school, because they were the only ones in that grade who tied, Keresztes explained.

"A lesser-qualified student – BPS or not – will never attain a seat over a more qualified student," he said.

Still, the news came as a surprise last week to parents with children in private, Catholic and charter schools. Some 450 of them were waiting to hear whether their kids got into City Honors.

It particularly didn't go over well with parents at St. Mark School on Woodward Avenue, which has been a feeder for City Honors over the years.

"I think a lot of parents feel that it was unfair for more than one reason," said Jennifer Rittling, a St. Mark parent. "It was not very well thought out, sort of arbitrary, almost discriminatory in the way that they changed it."

"If my son doesn't make it in because his test score wasn't high enough or his grades weren't great, OK," said Kristine Pottle, another parent from St. Mark School, "but don't tell me he can't be in the lottery because he goes to a private school. All I'm asking is for a fair shake."

Parents also were bothered that the district didn't better explain the ground rules.

"Every year it seems things are changing and people are left in the dark," said Romanowicz, the Tapestry mother. "Here's a great example of this."

"For the past month, we've been on pins and needles waiting for a letter from City Honors, and now to hear about this?"said Jayne Moskal-Smith, president of the parent's group at St. Mark School. "If we had been told – not that I would have liked it – but I would have been a little more informed."

The Buffalo School Board voted on the lottery policy during a public meeting on Feb. 15. That meeting was overshadowed by 75 protesters who disrupted the City Hall proceedings to call for the removal of Carl Paladino from the board.

In addition, the City Honors resolution was submitted by district administrators two days before the meeting and packaged with more routine items under the "consent agenda" without a discussion, explained Barbara A. Seals Nevergold, the board's president.

School Board President Barbara A. Seals Nevergold says the board should have publicly discussed admissions changes at City Honors School before approving them. (John Hickey/News file photo)

The resolution passed without some board members fully realizing what they had voted on.

"I take responsibility for that," Nevergold said. "In the course of what was going on during the meeting, we did not discuss it, and it got passed. There should have been discussion. There should have been opportunity for public presentation of it."

Nevergold, who has been fielding calls from parents, said the change in policy is not intended to be discriminatory, but provide more Buffalo Public Schools students with access to City Honors.

She will ask that a more complete explanation for the policy changes be given at the next board meeting on Wednesday.

"I know that they're angry," Nevergold said. "I know if it were my child and I was in that position, I would probably feel that way, too. But we're also trying to address what has happened in the past – which was not a fair opportunity for children in the district."

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