A congratulatory letter sent this week to several hundred families gave the impression their children had been admitted to one of Buffalo's top-performing schools.
“Congratulations!” the Buffalo Public Schools letter begins. “Your child qualified for admissions to Frederick Law Olmsted No. 156 and City Honors School No. 195 ... for September 2020.”
But when the jubilant parents reached out to the district to secure one of the coveted spots, they quickly became disheartened when told there wasn’t one for them.
The letter was meant to inform parents their child qualified for possible admission to the two schools through a lottery.
The blunder, in what is already a highly emotional issue for families, forced the district to apologize and send a new letter on Friday to clarify.
“We certainly do sincerely apologize for any misunderstanding,” said Tonja Williams, the district’s associate superintendent of student support services. “We have since revised the letter and updated it. It will be going out to families along with an explanation.”
In the initial letter, the district sought a congratulatory tone to convey to parents that their child was still in the running for admission, Williams explained, but now understands its error.
“In hindsight, we do realize that the letter was confusing,” Williams said.
The confusion comes at an already anxious time for parents awaiting word on whether their child was accepted into City Honors, arguably the best public school in the region.
It’s also a time of underlying tension over the district’s admissions process as the district struggles to address the disproportionately low number of black and Hispanic students admitted to the school on East North Street.
The district uses three measures in determining entrance: grade point average, attendance and an admissions test, which are compiled into a cumulative score of 20 possible points for each student. Spots are awarded by how students rank with their scores.
A total of 2,130 students took the admissions test in the fall, Williams said.
City Honors has 159 slots available for next year, which includes seats for 90 fifth graders. Olmsted, one of the other top city schools, has 138 available seats, mostly for ninth graders.
The fallout began on Monday.
Several types of letters were sent. Students with the highest scores received a letter informing them they got into either of the two schools. Others received a rejection letter.
And then there was the letter – sent by Kelli Daniels, the district’s director of student placement and registration – to the 537 families whose children qualified for the lottery, used to fill the remaining seats at the two schools. There are not enough seats in the schools to accommodate all the children of the 537 families. Those students will be entered into the district's computerized lottery.
The letter sent to each of them, after the introductory congratulations, showed the student’s composite score and asked parents whether they preferred a seat at City Honors, Olmsted or either.
“In order for us to identify a school assignment and proceed to the next step in the placement process, you must indicate one preference listed on page 2 of the letter and return to Central Registration Center by February 28, 2020,” the letter reads.
The letter never mentioned their child would be part of the lottery.
So when parents realized their children had not actually secured a spot at either school, they were angry and dejected, said Park District Board Member Lou Petrucci.
Petrucci, who fielded some of those calls from parents, described families who held celebratory dinners, posted proudly on Facebook and decorated their letter from the district – only to learn later their children hadn’t actually been admitted.
“It was a debacle,” Petrucci said. "For some of these families it's their second or third try – put yourself in their shoes."
Petrucci said incidents like this continue to erode the district’s credibility with parents.
“I know the district is working to correct it, but it wasn’t well thought out or executed,” he said.
Larry Scott, an at-large board member, also received calls from parents. Scott has complained before about operations at the Central Registration Center, located on Ash Street.
It’s often the first point of contact parents have with the school system, Scott said, so it’s imperative they walk away with not only a good experience, but receive better communication from the district.
“That was one of the things we wanted to change this year,” Scott said, “and, instead, we’re seeing another failed attempt to clearly communicate.”
“I’m extremely disappointed,” Scott said. “It’s very clear to me we need to start considering some drastic structural changes to address how we are doing business at central registration and, first and foremost, how we communicate with our parents.”
The new letter sent Friday does not offer any “congratulations” and more clearly spells out that the student is eligible for the lottery to be admitted to City Honors or Olmsted.
“As seats become available for children with your child’s composite score ... he or she will be entered into a computerized lottery process,” the letter reads. “If your child is selected you will be contacted to accept the seat assignment.”