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Pastors of several of Buffalo’s largest African-American churches are joining with parent leader Samuel L. Radford III in calling on the superintendent to close the city’s 44 low-performing schools in June and reopen them as district charter schools.

By the end of February, Radford hopes to have 5,000 signatures to present to the School Board, demanding the conversion of about three-fourths of the district’s schools to charter schools by September 2013.

It is a drastic solution he is proposing – and one that seems unlikely to be logistically possible. Converting just one district school to a charter school takes considerable work, and considerable planning.

But after decades of failure in the city schools, the time has come for bold steps, Radford and many pastors say.

“Back in the ’60s, the civil rights movement was centered in the church. Education is the new civil rights issue for this century and for this time, so the church really needs to get involved,” said the Rev. Richard A. Stenhouse, pastor of Bethel AME Church.

Several churches have designated today as “Education Sunday,” and several pastors are issuing a call to action for their congregants, reminding them of the city’s four-year graduation rate, which hovers around 50 percent – and its graduation rate for black males, which is half that.

Stenhouse is reminding parents in his congregation of their responsibilities – attending parent-teacher conferences, getting their children to school every day, making sure they do their homework, setting high academic expectations for their children – as well as urging them to call for change from the district.

The schools need to provide a longer school day, a longer school year and after-school programming into the evening hours, he said.

Radford’s charter-focused solution makes sense to Stenhouse because he thinks it would give parents more of a voice. While charter schools are publicly funded, each is overseen by its own board, not the elected districtwide School Board.

“Charters are a good option because they give the community a chance to have direct governance of the schools,” Stenhouse said. “It will help with the outcomes if those who have a vested interest in the outcomes are involved in the governance of the schools.

“We could deal with suspension rates. We could deal with attendance. We could deal with teacher performance. We could hold everyone accountable – parents and staff – for the outcomes.”

His church and half a dozen other large African-American churches in Buffalo constitute the Jeremiah Partnership, a faith-based coalition that has decided to support Radford’s petition drive.

A second, simultaneous petition drive is designed to gather signatures from parents whose students are in low-performing schools and request that their children be transferred into schools in good standing.

This fall, Radford tried to mobilize parents in low-performing schools to exercise their right under federal law to request that the district transfer their children into schools in good standing.

Forty-four schools in Buffalo are considered troubled enough academically that their students have the right to transfer. There are 11 schools in the district deemed to be in good standing; district officials allowed transfers this year into seven of them, saying the others were not options because students had to meet certain criteria to get into schools like Hutch-Tech or City Honors.

In September, 488 of the 26,300 eligible students requested transfers – a typical number in Buffalo, compared with the last several years of such transfers. Of those transfer requests, the district granted 317 of them, according to Kelli A. Daniels, supervisor of student support services and compliance. Students with the greatest academic need received preference.

Slightly less than half of the students who were granted transfers – 148 of them – actually ended up changing schools, she said. Some went to charter schools. Some remained at their old school. Some asked to go to a different school than the one they were assigned to.

Another 171 students who requested transfers did not get them. In some cases, Daniels said, students requested placement at schools like Olmsted, which have admissions criteria, but the students were not academically eligible for those programs.

Radford said he hopes to harness the support of local churches and get far more parents requesting transfers, to force the district to create seats in schools in good standing to accommodate all the transfer requests.

“We have to find something that’s going to work,” said Radford, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council. “We can’t just keep spinning our wheels.”

Jonathan Burman, a state Education Department spokesman, said it would be possible but unlikely that the district could convert so many schools to district-sponsored charter schools so quickly.

“While it would be legally possible to convert all of the schools by September 2013, it is difficult to imagine the Board of Regents being presented with 44 approvable applications within that time frame,” he said.

Radford cites documents from the federal and state governments directing school districts to create capacity in schools in good standing to accommodate students requesting transfers. In its application for federal anti-poverty funds this year, in fact, the Buffalo Public Schools stated it would add classrooms in schools in good standing to accommodate those students.

Radford said the district is in violation of federal law this year because it has not granted all the transfer requests – and it will be in violation again next year, when he says even more students will be asking for transfers.

“We’re saying to the state and federal governments, you have required schools to create capacity. Why are you allowing the Buffalo Public Schools to be in violation of the law without any consequence?” he said.

Radford will circulate petitions at the first Parent Assembly meeting of the year, at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at Performing Arts, 450 Masten Ave. And after “Education Sunday” today at several churches, another 20 or so churches are expected to take up the cause next weekend and urge their members to sign the petitions, he said.

The Rev. Darius Pridgen, pastor of True Bethel Baptist Church and Ellicott Common Council member, said he is waiting to decide whether to support the petition drive until he learns more of the details.

“I am a supporter of radical change. I want to be clear about that,” Pridgen said.

Regardless of whether he decides to support the petition drive, he said, he is encouraged by the interest that pastors and parents are taking in the city’s schools.

“When I was on the Board of Education 10 years ago, I could barely get a faith-based organization or parents to show up for very important issues unless you fed them,” Pridgen said. “So this is huge. I see our community addressing the issue in ways that I haven’t seen before. I think this is a sign of frustration. And frustration is good if there are going to be demonstrations that lead to change.”

email: mpasciak@buffnews.com