Distinguished educator Judy Elliott’s plan for improving the Buffalo Public Schools reads something like an indictment of top school administrators for the consistent failure of the system.
Central office administrators are out of touch with what happens in the classrooms, she wrote, and they rarely leave City Hall to visit schools. They either ignore requests for help from the schools or fail to respond adequately.
And decision-making for everything from staffing to budgeting has been happening in City Hall – not in the schools, as it should be, Elliott wrote in her report, which the state Education Department released to The Buffalo News on Wednesday.
“Buffalo City School District is a centralized system that provides little school autonomy,” she wrote. “The structure of governance has historically yielded poor student outcomes. Priority school principals uniformly voice that they are disconnected, unguided and unsupported due to a lack of service and support from the central office.”
State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. formally approved Elliott’s plan in a letter dated Tuesday. He noted that the district has until the end of October to submit a district comprehensive improvement plan, which is expected to incorporate Elliott’s recommendations.
If the district does not incorporate her recommendations, district officials will have to explain why. The improvement plan is subject to King’s approval.
Elliott’s report focuses largely on the district’s 28 “priority schools” – the newest designation for schools among the 5 percent lowest-performing in the state.
She articulates the problems that plague the district and outlines 39 steps designed to address those problems. Most of those steps involve providing training, reviewing data and providing written communications regarding specific issues.
Superintendent Pamela C. Brown said that she collaborated with Elliott on the report and that the two of them drew many similar conclusions after talking with school principals and others in the district.
“I think we’re transitioning from a former approach to a different approach,” Brown said. “We are acting on what we learned in our previous experience helps a district improve. … The things identified in the action plan are things that need to be addressed. Definitely, we are focusing on providing support more at the school level. Definitely, we are making data more accessible to people throughout the district.”
Elliott’s plan calls for a restructuring of the district to move decision- making out of City Hall and into individual schools – and to reform the central office to make that office more functional.
One of the key goals in the plan calls for establishing “a coherent, talented leadership team and organization at central office that is accountable; data-driven; and able to provide immediate, responsive service and support to priority schools.”
Elliott points out that budgeting in the district is centralized, meaning in part that federal funds targeted to help certain students often do not follow those students to their particular schools. Her report also found that student placement is a major concern. Some schools end up with “inordinately high numbers” of students who are not native English speakers – and those schools are unable to provide those students with the support they need.
“At the time of this report, there was an absence of coherent, consistent communication to schools,” Elliott wrote. “Schools report they do not know whom to call or email for support, and when they do, it is reported that often there is no response.”
She said criterion schools – those that require students to meet certain admissions requirements – do not have any seats reserved for open enrollment. Because of that, priority schools end up with a disproportionate number of students who lack credits, have lower skills and often have behavioral problems.
Central office administrators rarely use data to inform their decision-making, Elliott wrote. Often, their use of data is limited to sending principals a link to their building’s data on the state Education Department website.
Elliott also found:
• No principal meetings were scheduled for 2011-12, and there generally is “a lack of written direction and communication to principals.” However, a plan is being developed to conduct principal meetings this year.
• “There is little evidence of support and supervision of classroom instruction.” Professional development sessions are not aligned with the needs of each school. There is no method in place for schools to share best practices.
• In some priority schools, there is “a lack of appropriate services available to students with disabilities.”
• Career and technical programs in the district are underenrolled.
• Principals have historically not been involved in decisions regarding who will be hired to fill teaching or administrative positions in their schools. Brown recently told principals that will change.
• Principals do not have “the autonomy or resources to tailor expenditures to the needs of their schools.”
• Student absenteeism is a pervasive problem that requires a multi-agency effort at the city and county levels to effectively address it.
Elliott based her plan on visits to each of the priority schools; conversations with central office administrators; and a series of meetings, calls and email exchanges with the superintendent from Aug. 6 through Sept. 20.