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Buffalo tackles inequity, 'dumping' students in high school placement

Each year around this time, eighth-graders in Buffalo await word on where they will attend public high school and hope it will be their school of first choice.

Who decides?

For years, it was a small “selection” committee at the individual high schools.

How are the students chosen?

Grades, discipline record, student needs. Factors have varied from school to school.

That’s why the high school acceptance process in Buffalo has been somewhat of a mystery – and a problem.

That's also why significant changes in store would get rid of the selection committees that have resulted in what some refer to as the "dumping" of high-needs students into a handful of schools.

What has happened over the years is that high schools with the more specialized and popular programs plucked the best applicants. Meanwhile, the other students – maybe those with poorer grades, behavioral problems or still learning English – often got assigned to the traditional high schools which, not coincidentally, were among the lowest performing.

These admissions practices, which have been going on for who knows how long, have contributed in no small part to what many consider to be a two-tiered educational system in Buffalo. And it’s a cycle that only continues to repeat itself, setting up those same schools for failure again and again, said Ferry District School Board Member Sharon Belton-Cottman.

Five schools susceptible

School district officials named five schools most vulnerable: Burgard, East, International Preparatory, Math Science Technology and South Park.

“I need some clarity on why the schools need to be involved in the acceptance process – period,” said Cottman, who frequently speaks out on issues of inequity, most recently this one.

“It’s just not fair what’s going on,” Cottman said.

District officials agree.

In fact, it didn’t take long for Superintendent Kriner Cash to see the academic disparities between the city’s high schools when he first came to Buffalo 2 1/2 years ago.

Half are in “good standing” by State Education Department standards, while the other half are either under close watch or have continued to struggle.

Their predicament has become even more apparent the last few years. The district has been phasing out some low-performing high schools and reopening them under a new model with new leadership in hopes of providing more high-quality options.

But as that phase-in and phase-out happens one grade level at a time each year, there have been fewer options to locate upperclassmen arriving in the district, specifically those that show up midyear.

So, they’re being placed in those same five high schools.

Once the superintendent began to understand how students were being admitted into Buffalo’s high schools, it was a revelation. Now, he’s directed district administrators to fix the system.

“Over time it became clear, we had actually developed – wittingly and unwittingly – a school system of two different tiers of opportunities for our students,” Cash said.

“It’s a very, very significant equity and opportunity issue for our students,” Cash said, “and we had been doing it year after year after year after year.”

Not what schools should do

Buffalo has 19 high schools or programs.

Six of those are “criteria” schools, which have requirements to get in, such as an admissions test or an audition. They are: City Honors, da Vinci, Hutch Tech, Olmsted, Middle Early College and Performing Arts.

Some parents cry foul over City Honors admissions process

The “non-criteria” schools include traditional high schools that offer a general education and those that provide career and technical training. They are: Bennett, Burgard, East, Emerson, Emerson Annex, I-Prep, Lafayette, McKinley, Math Science & Technology, Research Lab for Bioinformatics, Riverside, South Park and a Pathways program for students who are over- and under-credited.

Students begin their high school search during the fall of eighth grade and apply in December, listing their top five high school choices in order.

Applicants traditionally are vetted by selection committees at the individual high schools. Those committees – made up of principals, counselors and teachers – would select a student not only based on grades, but such other factors as disciplinary record, need for special education services and whether he or she was learning English.

There might be an interview.

“We said we had six criteria schools, yet every school was operating as a criteria school,” said Mark Frazier, director of student placement and registration.

Data shows that South Park and East high schools accepted the highest percentages of applicants while City Honors, Olmsted, Middle Early College and Emerson Annex accepted the least.

These committees would deem candidates “qualified” or “not qualified,” although the basis for the decision was not completely clear, Frazier said.

One example: Last year, 167 eighth-graders were for one reason or another “not qualified” for any of the high schools and Central Registration stepped in and placed the students at schools with an open seat.

“The culprit was in the applications and the review teams,” Cash said. “For years and years, while we would say we accept all students, the truth is there were little questions – dastardly little things in these applications and in some cases the interviews – that would either self-select or directly select students out of that school.

“And that just doesn’t seem like what public schools should do,” Cash said. “Equal and high-quality opportunity should be available for all of our students all of the time.”

No 'discriminating' against kids

The district changed its policy this year for students entering high school in the fall. It wants to remove some of the subjectivity in the acceptance process and provide more consistency and transparency, Frazier said.

“We want to be able to tell parents why their student did or did not get into a school to take any mystery out of the process,” Frazier said.

The district also wants more kids to have the opportunity to get into a school of choice.

“If we have students who are better aligned to the school they are attending, and have an interest and want to be there, they’re more likely to go,” said Darren Brown, the district’s chief of staff.

Frazier, Brown and Finune Shaibi, the district’s supervisor of multilingual placement, have been meeting with principals to discuss the changes.

First was to rid the schools of their selection committees, except in a few cases where factors for acceptance were scaled back to remove subjectivity.

“That is paramount,” Shaibi said of dropping the selection committees.

“We’ve recommended this for multiple years, we’ve had committees review this, we’ve had principals recommend this,” Shaibi said.

"But," she said, "we’ve never had the courage to say, ‘This is what we are doing. No more looking, judging, discriminating against our own.”

For criteria schools, student selection will be based on a rubric to rank each applicant. In the case of tie scores, a lottery would be used.

For career and technical schools, the only criteria is interest, Shaibi said. If there are more applicants than seats, a lottery also would be used.

“We’re plugging the holes,” Shaibi said. “We’re slowly taking back the power.”

Students will be informed by early February which high school they are assigned to.

“It’s not a one-year fix,” Shaibi said. “We know it will be many years to truly perfect it.”

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