By Amber Dixon
There were two equally disturbing education headlines in the Buffalo News recently. The first warned that a local charter high school was in danger of having its charter revoked. The second that charter and public school tensions were possibly going to impact the renewal of a charter for a second school. The articles reflected the complex structure of our public education system but I’d like to reframe the discussion. Our real focus should be that over 750 Buffalo city children are in danger of having their schools taken away from them. That is frightening.
Seven hundred and fifty of Buffalo’s children, children in a city recognized as having a 53.9% rate of youth in poverty, may be assigned to new schools - not necessarily to better performing schools and not necessarily to schools in their neighborhoods, just reassigned to schools who have openings. How very unsettling, and traumatic for the children involved.
Monitoring the academic performance of schools is important, but schools are about more than academic performance. They are complex environs where young people interact with adults, form relationships with their peers, and spend most of their waking hours. Changing to a new school is a significant disruption for a child. Our high schools are particularly fragile. Buffalo’s graduation rate sits in the vicinity of 60%, or 6 out of every 10 students not completing high school in 4 years. To tell a young person that their school may not exist going forward does nothing to encourage increasing this percentage.
So what might we do instead to strengthen these children’s education without disrupting their lives? My suggestion is that we do what Buffalo has done so well lately, we look to ourselves for the answer. There are successful teachers in schools both public and charter. Buffalo has colleges with strong education departments. Let’s create a local intervention team. When a school begins to struggle, local teachers, administrators, and professors would be available to come in and help find solutions. We could create a city wide school resource center, one open to all Buffalo educators regardless of their employer. Teachers would have a meeting space for sharing best practices and for working together to solve shared challenges.
We must begin seeing the possibility of any school’s closure as a call to action on behalf of our children. Buffalo’s young people are a community asset, their well being a community concern. They need to be our priority. The debate over traditional public education and the role of public charters is a complicated one that will not be solved in the near future. Our immediate task is to shield our children from becoming pawns in this policy debate.
In Buffalo today we are reclaiming our waterfront, celebrating our historic architecture, and investing in new businesses. None of these efforts matter if we do not reclaim our responsibility and invest in the education and well being of our children. A school’s closure does not validate a policy position, it disrupts young lives.
Amber Dixon is former interim Superintendent of the Buffalo City School District.