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Buffalo's receivership schools improve – except one

Buffalo started with 25 schools — nearly half the district — that were threatened by the state with an outside takeover if they didn't improve their academic performance. And fast.

Two years later, only one of the 25 has come up short.

The majority of city schools in receivership have shown enough progress on key performance indicators to avert an independent takeover, the State Education Department announced Tuesday.

The benchmarks for improvement set by the state – 1 percentage point the first year, 3 percentage points the second year –  give most schools a good chance to avoid an outside takeover or come off the receivership list within a year or two.

There was one exception in Buffalo: B.U.I.L.D. Academy on Fougeron Street.

The school district has 60 days to appoint an independent receiver, who will put together a turnaround plan and assume full authority at the school starting in 2018-19. Superintendent Kriner Cash also could ask that the school be closed or reopened under a new model.

Cash said he's still considering his next move for B.U.I.L.D.,  but overall he's pleased with the progress the district's 13 remaining receivership schools have made, progress that means they could be removed from the list at the end of the current school year.

"These schools aren’t out of the woods yet," Cash said. "I consider a lot of them in ICU, if you will, but they're getting better — and they're going to get well."

Schools that are among the bottom 5 percent in the state for three consecutive years are placed in receivership, under a law proposed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and passed by state lawmakers in 2015.

The controversial legislation gave superintendents sole control of these targeted schools along with unprecedented powers to turn them around, including the ability to bypass the union contract and involuntarily transfer teachers.

Since then, Cash said he has used the new powers aggressively to usher in new teachers and leadership teams at the receivership schools. Many of those schools have been tagged by the district as "community schools," providing support services and programs to some of the district's neediest students and families after hours and on weekends.

In addition, Cash said, the new teacher contract negotiated last year has helped change the culture and climate at these schools, while there is more day-to-day accountability on what is going on inside the classrooms to "put everyone on the same high set of expectations and standards."

"We had to change the culture and climate," Cash said. "We had a school-by-school mindset and every school was on their own. They weren't really being consistently held accountable."

Buffalo started out with 25 schools in receivership. The following year, the state removed 10 of the schools from receivership list, after they showed two years of progress and their status was upgraded.

East, Lafayette and Riverside high schools are still technically in receivership, but are in the process of being phased out and reopened under new leadership and a new school model. Bennett High School also was on the original receivership list, but has since closed and reopened under a new model.

Those remaining include: Dr. Charles R. Drew Science Magnet School; D'Youville Porter Campus School; Frank A. Sedita Academy; Hamlin Park Claude & Ouida Clapp Academy; Harvey Austin School; Herman Badillo Bilingual Academy; International Preparatory School; Dr. Lydia T. Wright School of Excellence; Marva J. Daniel Futures Preparatory School; and West Hertel Academy.

They can be removed once they meet certain performance targets for two straight years and their status is upgraded.

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

Performance targets were set 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 was expected for the 2016-17 school year.

The State Education Department will announce later in the school year which schools will be formally removed from the receivership list. Sixty-one out of 63 receivership schools around the state showed progress, with B.U.I.L.D Academy and a school in Rochester the only exceptions.

"I have visited many of these schools and I am seeing schools tackle their issues in new and positive ways, which is encouraging," state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said in a prepared statement. "At the same time, much work remains to be done in many of these schools to provide an even greater focus with more intensive interventions to ensure that progress in these schools accelerates and they improve their outcomes for students."

Cash is hopeful for the receivership schools in Buffalo.

"Some are still right there on the line," Cash said, "but I think we're turned in the right direction. There are some schools that have made really nice progress."

In fact, Cash feels that B.U.I.L.D. now has a strong leadership team and plan in place, but the school needed more time.

In light of the news on Tuesday, Cash visited with the staff at the school to give them a pep talk.

The district has 60 days to select an independent receiver and have the appointment approved by the education commissioner. If the district doesn't meet that timeline, Elia can make the appointment.

Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, said the teachers at B.U.I.L.D. would still be covered by the collective bargaining agreement. The union, which has challenged the receivership law in court, also would challenge the appointment of an independent receiver, Rumore said.

School receivership law withstands court challenge

The district, however, could ask the state Board of Regents to close the school, or reopen it under a new model.

"That's not out of the picture yet," Cash said, "but I'm just going to have to give it careful thought and engage the community a little bit, because there's such a strong history in that school."

The school was founded by the East Side community organization, B.U.I.L.D. - Build, Unity, Independence, Liberty, Dignity - which was instrumental in the black community during the 1960s and 1970s.

One of its crowning achievements was the grassroots effort to start a school where African-American students would be educated predominately by African-American teachers, said Casandra Wright, a former B.U.I.L.D. principal now serving as an associate superintendent of school leadership.

"It was the pride and gem of the African-American community," Wright said.


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