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Citing poor performance, state recommends closing Oracle Charter School

Another Buffalo charter school could be closing its doors.

The state, citing poor performance, is recommending that Oracle Charter School not have its charter renewed and close at the end of the school year in June.

School leaders have been breaking the news to teachers, students and parents over the past couple of days. But they also said that Oracle, now in its 13th year, isn't giving up.

The high school of more than 300 students at 888 Delaware Ave. will appeal.

"If I believed that these children were not being properly served or given an opportunity to get a good education, I'd be the first one to say, 'Let's do something else,' " said George Nicholas, a member of Oracle's board of trustees, "but we believe we can make this work."

Oracle opened in the fall of 2005 along Delaware’s row of mansions to provide a college preparatory education.

Its charter has been renewed twice, most recently in 2012. But when Oracle submitted its application last year it received a different response from the Charter Schools Institute at the State University of New York.

SUNY is one of the state agencies that authorizes charter schools. The institute is charged with evaluating charter school applications and monitoring their performance for recommendations to  SUNY trustees.

Oracle has not been meeting its academic goals or mission as a college preparatory program, according to the institute's report.

“Oracle’s students do not graduate from the program prepared for college and career,” the state said in its report. “The school has not met its college-readiness goal throughout the charter term and, while its graduation rate has consistently been higher than the very low graduation rate of the Buffalo City Schools, its overall trend is downward.

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“Compounding this trend is that the school retains less than 50 percent of its 9th grade class three years later,” the report continued. “Performance on Regents exams in ELA and mathematics does not signal preparation for fulfilling the school’s college-going mission.”

Oracle's Board of Trustees takes responsibility, but acknowledges it wasn't made fully aware of what was happening at the school, said Jacqueline Hollins and Ramone Alexander, who joined as co-chairs of the board at the start of 2017.

Oracle's former head of school abruptly resigned at the end of 2016, and it wasn't until the board hired an educational consultant to conduct an independent review of the school that it got the full scope of what was going on, Hollins and Alexander said.

There had been a "lack of transparency" Hollins said, "so we were unable to provide guidance on how to help our students get from A to B."

The former administration, for example, had kept the board apprised of such issues as school discipline, attendance and graduation rate, which fluctuated in recent years but was higher than the rate for Buffalo Public Schools.

The independent review, however, shed light on other important benchmarks specific to Oracle that the state would cite in its detailed 55-page report.

That report included a litany of shortcomings at Oracle, such as: missing performance targets on reading and math; not enough advanced Regents diplomas or graduates moving onto college; a high rate of teacher turnover; a struggle to retain students; and a failure to provide higher quality supports for the kids.

"There were just some systems not in place," Alexander said, "but we responded once we became aware of that."

Oracle has 35 teachers and instructional staff to educate 311 students in grades 9 through 12.

Ninety-six percent of the students are black or Hispanic, Nicholas said.

All of Oracle's students come from impoverished backgrounds, he said.

Janet Barnes, a retired administrator with Buffalo Public Schools, was hired as interim head of school in 2016 and made permanent last spring. Benjamin Willis came over from Tapestry Charter School and serves as assistant head of school.

Oracle's appeal is scheduled for Jan. 25, when school leaders will go before a SUNY panel to try to make a convincing case that they have begun to set things right and their charter should be renewed.

“We’re going to build the kind of situation that we’ll not only be able to meet those numbers that they want here, but we’ll exceed them,” Nicholas said. “We just need a little time to put some of these things in place.”

There are currently 19 charter schools in the region, most of them in Buffalo.

In the past five years, the state refused to renew charters at both Pinnacle Charter School at 115 Ash St. and Community Charter School at 404 Edison Ave., sparking lengthy court battles before both lost and closed.

Still, the number of charter schools has been growing.

Two new charters opened in Buffalo this year, two more are scheduled to open next year, and at least two more are in the pipeline, which would bring the region’s total to 23, after years of relatively consistent numbers.

These days, 1 in 5 children who attend a public school in Buffalo go to a charter – an estimated 9,000 students.

In fact, the Buffalo Board of Education – frustrated by the loss of more students and funding to new charters – asked the state in September to issue a three-year moratorium on charters in the city.

The request was denied.

No moratorium on Buffalo charter schools, state says


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