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With 'transformational' money to spend, Buffalo schools make big plans

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Kriner Cash (copy) (copy)

Buffalo Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash said academic catching up would focus on acceleration, not remediation.

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Music in every elementary building, modified sports and two gender-based high schools are among the high-impact investments Buffalo Public Schools would make with its $289 million in federal pandemic aid.

And academic catching up would focus on acceleration, not remediation, Superintendent Kriner Cash said Thursday when he presented the plan to reporters.

"That’s one big, big difference, like a sea change shift for us, to focus on acceleration versus remediation," Cash said. "All courses, all classrooms, will have some rigor, more than they’ve had, and it will continue right on up."

Students, he said, did not experience a learning loss during the 15 months of remote and hybrid education during the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead, they had a learning time loss, Cash said.

Buffalo will divide its funding from the American Rescue Plan and Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds into four areas, and 60% of it will go toward academic growth. The district plans to spend $173.42 million for expanded instructional initiatives, $38.93 million to open schools safely; $38.92 for student emotional and social well being and support services, and $38.12 million for information technology upgrades and digital resources.

"We are at a unique juncture," School Board President Louis J. Petrucci said. "We have the type of dollars that can be transformational."

"All eyes are going to be on us, we know that," Cash said.

When students return to school in the fall, they will be screened for social/emotional and mental health. The district will hire support staff such as a wellness coordinator, nurses, counselors, social workers, psychologists and attendance teachers. The Welcoming Center for new and returning students, visited by more than 10,000 families, will be upgraded. 

Mental health supports will address classroom racial trauma and systemic oppression, as well as post-pandemic trauma.

New academic and sports programs will aim to meet students' needs.

The district is planning two single-gender high school programs, one for males and one for females, with opportunities for mentorship, travel and culturally responsive curriculum. Cash did not say when those would be implemented.

"There is a lot of good research, when you do gender-based academies and focus on particular needs, students grow faster," Cash said.

There is the opportunity for high-level engagement in visual and performing arts on the high school level, with funding available to purchase rights to plays and musicals, as well as costumes and scenery. And the district wants to include "cutting-edge" music technology course sequences.

The theater program on the middle grade level would be expanded to more schools.

On the elementary level, the plan calls for establishing instrumental music programs in every school to develop a pipeline for high school programs and ensembles. 

The district also plans a major increase in student athletics, recognizing that as students learn teamwork, sportsmanship, character and hard work, "the educational process is hard at work during the competitive framework of practices and games," according to the plan.

A major initiative would add modified sports programs for seventh- and eighth-graders and increase junior varsity sports at all 18 high schools to align with the modified offerings. 

The district also hopes to develop an equity minority pipeline of officials, recruiting a diverse student population interested in officiating modified sports.  

New turf fields would be installed at All High, Riverside and Johnnie B. Wiley stadiums, and the plan calls for the construction of field houses and new scoreboards. 

Federal funding will pay for a full-day elementary summer school program focusing on math and reading acceleration and enrichment activities, and high school summer programming is available for the full day at every high school.

The plan is not finalized yet, and it could change, Cash said.

"This is a working draft," he said. "This is fluid."

Thousands of citizens gave input on how they thought the money should be spent at virtual meetings and a questionnaire on the district website in April and May, he said.

The plan includes a section on "lessons learned" from other infusions of money during the recession. Urban districts learned using tutors from outside the district did not work, Cash said. Districts also may be tempted to hire additional staff, but with no way to pay for them, since the grants must be used by September 2024.

Buffalo, Cash said, will focus on building learning capacity that can be sustained after the grants expire.

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