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As Buffalo’s schools and teachers hurtle toward their own fiscal cliff in a battle at least indirectly centered on the role of parents, a quieter – but potentially more important – effort is under way that also needs widespread parental involvement.

Say Yes to Education has begun surveying students, teachers and parents in 27 district schools as a key step in compiling a database that will be used to come up with individual plans tailored to help each student.

While Say Yes made a splash with its guarantee of a free college education, the help that will be provided students and families based on the survey results – eventually compiled at all schools – is the real key to turning around lives.

The surveys, developed by the American Institutes for Research, went out to schools Dec. 14 and are due back by mid-February. While getting a captive audience of students and teachers to complete them will be relatively easy, it will be interesting to see the parental participation rate.

Consultants were disappointed at the response rate last spring when they surveyed and held forums while searching for a new superintendent. Similarly, participation at a recent districtwide parent assembly was disappointing. And teachers objecting to counting the scores of chronically absent students in their evaluations conveniently blame parents for failing to make kids come to class. That sticking point threatens millions in state aid as next Thursday’s deadline approaches.

But as that battle drags on, Say Yes is progressing on the plan to provide the districtwide after-school and social service programs that many students need.

The parental surveys inquire about everything from medical, dental and vision needs and whether parents need help getting care for their kids, to how often parents encourage reading and whether there’s Internet access at home.

Student surveys of sixth-graders and above ask about peer influences regarding college, the number of adults they can turn to with a problem, or attitudes about bullying or feelings of alienation.

The goal, said Say Yes Executive Director David Rust, is to pair the survey data – which will be confidential – with academic data to come up with a plan tailored to each student.

That might mean an after-school focus on literacy for kids whose survey responses indicate they don’t read at home, counseling for those with emotional issues, or field trips to build up the “cultural capital” of those who’ve never attended a museum.

But it all hinges on the accuracy of the data collected in this “holistic” effort he calls unprecedented nationally.

“The expectation is that all students, teachers and parents complete this,” Rust told a parents group this week.

As with all student data, this will be confidential, he emphasized in an interview. That should help allay any suspicions, like those that make collecting census data such a challenge when trying to ensure that minority communities don’t get shortchanged.

In this case, students would get shortchanged if parents opt out. In fact, critics of the district’s heavy-handed suspension policies have been calling for the very types of agency help that Say Yes is trying to provide.

That help won’t be effective if there’s no data that shows how to target it.

Parents also need to see their participation as a chance to prove wrong all the critics who say they just don’t care.

email: rwatson@buffnews.com