It’s either a much-needed rescue or a hostile takeover, depending on whom you talk to.
There doesn’t seem to be much middle ground on the proposal to close East High School and Waterfront Elementary as district schools and reopen them as charter schools.
The proposal for these two schools seems to have stoked passions around the charter issue here in Buffalo in a way this community hasn’t seen in years.
The community conversation over the plans for East and Waterfront will continue at a public information session that Chameleon Community Schools Project is holding at 6 p.m. today in the Belle Center, 104 Maryland Ave.
Those working with the charter group say it’s high time the district tries something new at the two schools. Both are considered among the lowest-performing in the state.
“We believe it’s time to stop talking about what we can’t do and start talking about what we can do – because we can’t keep losing our children,” said Valeria Aldridge, a board member of the charter group.
What’s more, the charter group says, the School Board has refused to meet with it to hear its proposal for more than five months.
And, they say, district officials have blocked their access to parents at the two schools, to ensure they could not organize parents in support of the charter plans.
On the other side of the debate, some East supporters are accusing the charter organizers of targeting their school so that they can curtail black students’ access to the school’s bioinformatics program.
One School Board member, Sharon Belton-Cottman, who represents the Ferry District, suggested that some people locally may have intentionally sabotaged the district’s improvement plans for Waterfront specifically to make it more vulnerable to a charter takeover.
And some people have alleged that the state Education Department was working directly with the charter supporters behind the School Board’s back to develop the charter plans.
“What infuriates me is that someone has a contact with someone in State Ed that has been working with you,” longtime School Board member Florence Johnson told the charter group.
The level of distrust that the debate over East and Waterfront seems to have stirred is atypical even in Buffalo, which has one of the highest charter penetration rates in the state – and one of the least amicable relationships between the district and local charter schools.
That’s largely because Chameleon’s plans for these two schools are unprecedented in the state: Never before has a group asked the state to approve plans to close existing district schools and reopen them as charters – without the support of the district.
While the School Board has not taken a formal vote on Chameleon’s proposal, it became clear at a public hearing the board held last week that it has no intention of closing the two schools to clear the way for them to reopen as charters.
“At this point in time, it is really premature to pre-empt the new superintendent, who we believe has the abilities, the talent and the vision to make the changes that we need to increase student achievement,” said Barbara Seals Nevergold, an at-large board member. “We are working on change as we speak.”
That leaves only one other possible way the plans could move forward: State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. would have to recommend to the Board of Regents that the state revoke the schools’ registrations, which would effectively force them to close.
It is a step the state has never taken.
King has threatened it repeatedly with Lafayette High School – for two years running, in fact. But closing Lafayette would have meant reassigning more than 700 students – most of them recent immigrants in need of additional support – to other district schools, making it a logistical challenge that seemed nearly insurmountable.
The difference with East and Waterfront is that rather than dispersing students throughout the district, students would have the option of applying to return to their own school, operating as a charter – although there would not be enough room to accommodate all the existing students.
What also remains to be factored into this situation is the fact that the district has submitted improvement plans for each school.
The state a few months ago rejected the plan to hire Canisius College to run Waterfront. The district now has until the end of December to submit a new plan.
The state did, however, approve the plan to hire Johns Hopkins University to run East – and the district has signed a transitional contract to bring the group into the school in some capacity.
But the state will not release funding for the plan to hire Johns Hopkins until Buffalo submits a satisfactory teacher evaluation plan. That has not happened yet, and the district and the teachers union are currently in a stalemate.