In a school district as large and diverse as Buffalo, how does the administration set priorities between schools focused on the core curriculum and schools with supplementary programs?
In many respects, students in the Buffalo Public Schools are lucky to have options. Choosing a vocational school – such as Hutch-Tech, Emerson, Performing Arts or McKinley – allows students to plan for their futures with career-preparatory curricula. Specialized schools such as City Honors offer extra college-preparatory courses, such as Advanced Placement and the globally-recognized International Baccalaureate program.
Schools with specific focuses such as these should be supported to the utmost by the district because they provide a way for students to study subjects in which they are interested, and equip them with knowledge beyond what they would receive in a standard-curriculum high school.
In recent weeks, a lawsuit filed eight years ago by teachers at City Honors has begged the question: What measures are being taken by the district to support the missions of specialized schools?
In 2010, the teachers of City Honors filed a lawsuit against the Buffalo Public Schools protesting the removal of the aides who performed supervisory duties around the school.
The aides had been removed because of the expense of maintaining both a large teaching staff and teacher aides, which cost $350,000 a year.
Since this was evidently not a sustainable sum, the district mandated that teachers would have to resume the supervisory duties that for many years they had been absolved from performing.
While many people view the lawsuit as advocating an elitist and privileged agenda, the teachers’ reasoning behind being freed from supervisory duties is sensible.
City Honors students are given many college-level assignments that take longer for teachers to prepare and grade. Time also needs to be made for teachers to advise students on hefty, long-term IB projects.
Students thrived under this model. City Honors was ranked by Newsweek as the 4th best public high school in the nation in 2006, four years before the policy requiring teachers to perform duties was reinstated.
It is logical for teachers to want to spend more time with their students. Whether it is cost-effective, however, is a different matter entirely.
Now, eight years after the lawsuit was filed, the district is being forced to take action. With the teachers garnering a win in court, the lack of response on the part of the district left it in contempt of court since September.
In early January, the district began negotiations with the Buffalo Teachers Federation and the teachers at City Honors to facilitate the implementation of a plan that would bring back aides to supervise the student body.
And here the central problem arises: Six teachers would have to be laid off to cover the expense of hiring aides. As a result, class sizes could increase, as fewer teachers would be forced to take on more students. Mass schedule changes would have to be made mid-year. Academics would be sacrificed in favor of supervision. And though students and parents have been told that negotiations are still in progress, the aides have already been hired and are reporting to work – now stationed not only in the cafeteria and at the sign-in desk, but outside bathrooms, at the top of stairs, and in the halls. City Honors is overflowing with aides, while established and well-respected teachers in the IB program are facing layoffs.
The district’s initial proposed plan will create a ripple effect reaching far beyond the walls of City Honors. It was determined that the teachers to be laid off at City Honors would be those with the least number of years employed by the district. Though these teachers hold the least seniority at City Honors, they will still displace newer teachers at other schools, widening the scope of students and teachers affected.
The same fallout happening at City Honors will be experienced by students across the district: an abrupt, mid-year change in teaching staff, and a lack of continuity in the learning environment. These changes will create a dangerous precedent. Could an established music teacher at Performing Arts be laid off next in favor of a supervisory aide?
The district needs to be supporting schools with specialized programs now more than ever. Enforcing the proposed plan would be detrimental to student learning, which should be the first thing taken into consideration by all parties involved. Students with college- and job-readiness benefit the community. They help Buffalo gain recognition if its schools produce alumni such as Ani DiFranco, a graduate of Performing Arts, John Rzeznik, lead singer of the Goo Goo Dolls and a graduate of McKinley, Wallace E. Cunningham, an architect and a graduate of Hutch Tech, and Megan Smith, Chief Technology Officer of the United States and a graduate of City Honors. It is our diversity that makes us great.
As it is currently being publicized, the BTF and the BPS are still in the negotiations process.
On behalf of students across the district, I implore the district to consider how these changes will affect students.
With students seeking answers, parents feeling uninformed, and teachers uncertain of where they will be working in the near future, communication and cooperation is pivotal.
Recall the mission of the Buffalo Public Schools, "putting children and families first to ensure high academic achievement for all." Make changes that put children first, and that ensure, most importantly, high academic achievement for all.
Valerie Wales is a junior at City Honors School.