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The new report on the Buffalo Public Schools is a painful but honest look at the long-standing problems that are holding back students, and, in that, it is also a hopeful document. You can’t fix what’s wrong if you don’t know what’s wrong.
The report was prepared by distinguished educator Judy L. Elliott, who was appointed by the state to help turn around Buffalo’s lowest-performing schools. She spent her first six weeks on the job visiting those schools (evidently a novel concept in Buffalo), speaking with central office administrators and exchanging information with the district’s new superintendent, Pamela C. Brown.
Her conclusions were depressing, if not entirely surprising. What she found was that central office administrators had isolated themselves from the schools, ignoring requests for help or failing to respond adequately. All decision-making is concentrated in City Hall, not in the schools.
“Buffalo City School District is a centralized system that provides little school autonomy,” Elliott 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.”
That’s not a finding, it’s an indictment.
Other findings include failure to schedule principal meetings in 2011-12, little evidence of support and supervision of classroom instruction and high rates of student absenteeism, among other issues.
Brown collaborated on the report with Elliott, who came to many of the same conclusions, a heartening sign that they are on the right track. State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr., who appointed Elliott, approved the report, which included 39 steps meant to address the problems it details. Its recommendations mainly deal with providing training, reviewing data and providing written communications regarding specific issues.
Now it is up to Brown and the School Board to implement the solutions. The board is not required to follow Elliott’s prescriptions, but it is required by the end of this month to submit a comprehensive improvement plan that is expected to incorporate those recommendations. If it doesn’t, district officials will have to explain why. Parents, taxpayers and voters would be interested to hear those explanations.
The report is, by inference, a harsh criticism of the administration of former Superintendent James A. Williams and his predecessors. They concentrated authority in their offices and squelched the talents, creativity and passion of principals and teachers who are the boots on the ground.
But the report also stands as a condemnation of the School Board, itself, which left the superintendents it hired to administer the district in that oppressive way. Suffocation of talent does not qualify as strong leadership, and if the board didn’t know its superintendents were pursuing that strategy, it should have.
The board has also been unwilling to do what good leaders do: set policy and expect administrators to implement it. In some sense, the central office was only following the example set in City Hall.
Fortunately, nearly anyone can learn from mistakes. Things have been so dysfunctional in this district for so long that insiders may not know the culture needs changing, let alone how to go about doing it. The School Board now has a golden opportunity to redeem itself and help lead the way toward improved education for Buffalo’s children.
That work has begun. Brown has told principals they will become involved in filling teaching and administrative positions in their schools – a significant development – and plans are under way to hold principal meetings.
It’s a start, but there is a long way to go. Elliott’s initial contribution shows a way forward.