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UB, Buffalo district look to BUILD relationship at troubled school

Take one of the lowest-performing schools in Buffalo and match it with a collection of academics seasoned in the latest research and best classroom practices.

Would it make a difference? Could it turn around the school?

That’s what Buffalo Public Schools officials are hoping as they enlist the help of the University at Buffalo to tackle one of the district’s tougher turnaround cases: BUILD Academy.

The district has decided to “close” the school on Fougeron Street on the city’s East Side at the end of the school year and reopen it in the fall under a new model, with new school leadership and the aid of its new partner – UB’s Graduate School of Education.

“This will be a fresh start,” said Kriner Cash, Buffalo’s school superintendent. “I’m excited about it.”

The scenario also provides a clearer picture of how the district plans to maneuver through “receivership.”

When the state delivered an ultimatum to its most struggling public schools – improve or else – many anticipated the consequence would be a takeover by an outside entity to improve academic results.

This is a bit different.

BUILD is one of 14 Buffalo schools in receivership – a status based on legislation passed in 2015 giving superintendents more power to make changes at their most struggling schools.

BUILD Academy, school with proud history, is running out of time

However, BUILD – which stands for Build Unity, Integrity, Leadership, Dignity  –  was the only one that didn’t show progress. The State Education Department last fall ordered the district to appoint an independent receiver to take full control of the school starting in 2018-19.

The problem is that the district received only a couple of applicants for the job – one being UB – and there seemed to be more interest in serving as “partners” with the school district, as opposed to assuming full responsibility for turning around BUILD.

Another option, though, is to close and reopen the school, which is what the superintendent and Board of Education suggested to state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia.

The commissioner has yet to approve the final proposal but has indicated early support.

Cash said he feels good about keeping BUILD as a district school rather than turning it over to someone from the outside.

“This is better,” Cash said. “It’s more collegial, more professional. It doesn’t have a punitive feel to it, and we’re doing it with local resources helping us.”

The school, started by the community organization BUILD  during the civil rights era, now has roughly 450 students in prekindergarten through grade 8.

State data shows that among the students in grades 3 to 8 who tested last year, only about 2 percent were proficient in math while just 1 percent were proficient in English language arts.

So what can the school do that wasn’t already being done?

An instructional redesign for BUILD is still under development, but plans are starting to take shape.

The school, for example, would reopen as “BUILD Community School,” offering students and their families programs and services after school and on Saturdays.

New school leadership will be selected, as will the staff, although it’s not clear how much the teaching ranks will turn over considering the superintendent replaced a number of teachers last school year.

Students would be allowed to transfer but most are expected to remain.

UB, meanwhile, would be the major community partner, providing the expertise of faculty from the Graduate School of Education, who recognize they don’t have all the answers – but can help.

“We see a whole lot of ideas thrown into schools and too often there isn’t a research base to it,” said Suzanne Rosenblith, dean of the Graduate School of Education, “so if it works we don’t know why it works – and whether it can be replicated elsewhere.”

A team from UB already has visited the school and worked with the district on completing the necessary paperwork for final approval from the state.

Cost and funding are unclear at this point, although the university said it looks at the partnership as “cost neutral.”

“We’ve talked about a few things,” said Thomas Ramming, clinical associate professor involved in the project. “We’d like to build on what’s already there and hopefully bring our faculty – with both a practical background as well as those heavily involved in research – to analyze and study more in depth what’s going on with curriculum, learning, structure of the school, class size.”

“Then,” Ramming said, “work with the district to see if we can over time make some collaborative changes that will ultimately enhance teaching and learning.”

Rosenblith and Ramming said professors in the Graduate School of Education have relationships with individual schools around the region, but this opportunity with BUILD would be unique.

“I think one of the reasons Dr. Cash and I were both very interested in this partnership is we’re really looking beyond addressing some of the needs of BUILD and trying to figure out how to make an impact at lots and lots of schools,” Rosenblith said. “How do we put into place a partnership that’s sustainable?”

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