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North Park school being revamped to try to win back parents

North Park, one of Buffalo’s stronger neighborhoods, has good housing stock, lots of middle-class families and a bustling business corridor along Hertel Avenue.

It also has a public school – one that only a handful of kids from the neighborhood choose to attend.

Now there’s a move afoot to fix that.

Buffalo Public Schools has set out to “reclaim” the North Park neighborhood and woo those families with some big changes for its school on Parkside Avenue: North Park Middle Academy.

It is being phased out as a middle school for grades 5 to 8 and, instead, will serve students in grades Pre-K through 8, as the younger grade levels are phased in starting next school year.

In addition, North Park has been tagged as one of the district’s 15 “community schools,” which offer after-school and Saturday activities, as well as programs and services for the entire community.

One of the goals is to attract more kids within walking distance.

“It’s a really interesting community,” said Superintendent Kriner Cash. “There’s a lot of families. It’s tight. Yet they’re not choosing the epicenter school.”

“They’re in private school, Catholic schools, independent schools,” Cash said. “We have to win them back. We have to attract them back to our schools by providing programming and a quality curriculum and experience that they feel is competitive with any school.”

The North Park plan – the latest in an effort to build public confidence in the troubled school district – is getting good early reviews.

“As I walked into North Park I thought, ‘Wow, what a diamond in the rough,’” said Hope Jay, who represents the North District on the Buffalo Board of Education. “This has so much underutilized space and so much potential. It’s the hub of the North District. It’s centrally located. It’s very close to Hertel Avenue, which is booming right now.”

“I’m absolutely thrilled about the idea,” said Joel Feroleto, Delaware District Common Council member. “The fact that it’s going to be a community school and it’s going to be filled with neighbors is going to make it a very desirable school to go to.”

The North Park neighborhood is bordered by Delaware, Kenmore, Starin and Linden avenues and home to roughly 15,000 residents of North Buffalo, census figures show.

The school enrolls 233 students, about 85 percent of them minorities. It’s considered a “focus” school by state standards, which is better than the lowest performing schools but still needs improvement to be considered in “good standing.” Last year, 7 percent of the students were proficient in reading, while 9 percent were proficient in math, according to state data.

“It’s certainly not on the radar of the vast majority of residents living in North Buffalo,” Jay said. “If their kids are not accepted into Olmsted or School 81 or Bennett Park, they tend to make the decision to apply to a charter or, if they’re financially able, send their children to a Catholic or private school.”

St. Mark School, a popular choice for North Buffalo residents, is about a mile away.

One of the problems, Jay said, is parents are reluctant to move their kids to North Park for the middle grades if they’re already established at another public or private school in the lower grades.

In fact, district data shows nearly 500 potential students live within a mile and a half of North Park. But only 23 of them are enrolled. The rest attend other schools.

“Living two blocks away from the school and living in North Buffalo my entire life, I’ve heard thousands of times from parents with children that they want a public school in their neighborhood that kids could walk to school,” Feroleto said.

Board Members Barbara Seals Nevergold, Theresa Harris-Tigg and Sharon Belton-Cottman have raised concerns about equity and whether the North Park redesign will cater only to families from a certain socioeconomic status.

Cash said the goal for North Park is to have about half of its enrollment be within walking distance of the school so parents can be more involved – which is the goal at all 15 community schools.

The superintendent also said he would like to see a diverse racial make-up – a third white, a third black and a third “other” – at North Park, similar to that at Olmsted.

Besides being a community school, North Park will have an academic theme focused on life and environmental science in partnership with the Buffalo Zoo, said Mary Jo Conrad, a district associate superintendent.

In preparation, the district is already seeking construction bids to move the school’s cafeteria from the third floor to the first floor, add additional classrooms and upgrade the playground, Conrad said.

$20,000 in aid from state Sen. Chris Jacobs, a former School Board member who raised this issue during his senate campaign, will help fund school upgrades.

It will be a challenge to win over the neighborhood, Jay acknowledged.

But, she said, parents seem energized.

One example: The school district has more applicants than it does seats for pre-K and kindergarten enrollment at North Park next year, although it’s unclear how many of those are from the North Park neighborhood.

“You have to get the neighborhood excited,” Jay said. “If you can get the parents and the neighborhood to invest in this school, the school is going to take off.”

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