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Rod Watson: Buffalo students play catch-up to New York City’s homeless

Rod Watson

For almost as long as there have been schools, educators have pointed to a student’s socioeconomic background as the greatest determinant of – or excuse for – why some succeed and others don’t.

It’s an explanation that makes last week’s report from The Education Trust-New York all the more puzzling – and damning.

How could homeless kids in New York City – bouncing from shelter to shelter or living out of a car – do as well or better on average than Buffalo Public Schools students who never have been homeless?

Granted, Buffalo’s kids as a whole are a little bit poorer than New York City’s. State data pegs 79 percent of Buffalo’s students as economically disadvantaged, compared to 71 percent in New York City. Nor is Buffalo alone in underperforming compared to homeless kids downstate. Rochester and Syracuse fared much worse in the comparison.

But the 8 point gap in poverty is not enough to explain the test score disparity, and the fact that other districts are doing even worse doesn’t excuse Buffalo’s poor performance.

According to the report, 21 percent of New York City’s homeless kids and 41 percent of students who had never been homeless passed the state’s 2015-16 English exam. That compares to 10 percent of Buffalo’s homeless pupils, and just 18 percent of Buffalo students who were never homeless. In math, 19 percent of New York City’s homeless and 40 percent of its never-homeless students passed, compared to just 7 percent of Buffalo’s homeless and 18 percent of its never homeless kids.

One explanation is that New York City has put a big emphasis on educating its homeless population, said Abja Midha, deputy director of The Education Trust-New York. That emphasis includes "intense tracking of students from a young age," starting in kindergarten and first grade and not waiting until state tests begin in third grade, she said.

And it means providing social and academic support, such as encouraging kids to do homework in after-school programs where it’s quieter than in a homeless shelter.

New York City also has focused on community schools that stay open nights and weekends and provide extra services.

"In Buffalo, the community schools initiative is relatively new," she said by way of contrast.

In fact, it didn’t arrive until Superintendent Kriner Cash was hired in 2015. That was long after Michael Bloomberg took control of New York City’s schools while mayor. Samuel L. Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council – one of the partners in the report – noted that much of New York City’s improvement came during Bloomberg’s tenure.

What was Buffalo doing during that time?

Arguing over who should or shouldn’t be superintendent and hemming and hawing over mayoral control.

Now Cash points to mental health supports in schools, universal prekindergarten and smaller class sizes as well as community schools – with their after-school and Saturday programming – as part of the effort to put "a huge bear hug around all of our students." He also cites Say Yes Buffalo’s wraparound services.

Those are the supports vulnerable kids need regardless of where they live.

"My thing is to help all of our children; that’s what we’re trying to do," Cash said.

That New York City was on to that long before Buffalo doesn’t say much for those in charge here before Cash’s arrival.

In other words, leadership matters. Without it, kids pay dearly.

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