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Strong schools are viewed by many as being critical to the prosperity of communities. Few Western New Yorkers have been more attuned to issues involving education than Robert M. Bennett, chancellor emeritus of the state Board of Regents.

Bennett sat down sat with The Buffalo News’ Brian Meyer to discuss recent education reforms and some proposed changes. Here is a summary of some of the issues covered in an interview that is part of the weekly “In Focus” series. Watch the full interview at BuffaloNews.com/video.

Meyer: If someone asked you to give a few sentence summary of where education is across the state, what would you say?

Bennett: I think we’re doing OK, but we could do much better ... Good to great is what the expectation is. Every single change that’s occurring these days is based on the belief that we have to do much better to get kids ready for careers and college by the end of 12th grade ...

Meyer: The mantra in Albany has been education reform ... we’ve seen some new learning standards imposed.

Bennett: That started about 3½ years ago ... With 40 other states, we said that English and mathematics are the key components. We call it the common-core learning standards. Everything emanates from that. The new curriculum, the new teacher preparation, the new teacher evaluation, the better use of data, professional development along the way. It’s all based on what should a child know at the end of each grade level and how do we know whether they’ve learned it or not.

Meyer: You’ve mentioned one of the real hot-button issues, and that is teacher evaluations. We’ve heard so much debate – fiery debate on that issue. Most of the districts have submitted plans and seen them approved ... Has the state overstepped its bounds and perhaps imposed evaluation methods that aren’t going to get to the goal, which is higher achievement?

Bennett: This is principal and teacher evaluation, which is a key component. The role of the principal is critical to a school’s success. I think that this is basically a professional development opportunity. It is not a “gotcha” at all.

It is to learn better how to improve the profession of teaching ... [I’ve wondered] what’s all the fuss about, because it is a marvelous approach to telling parents, telling teachers, telling leaders, telling government bodies how are you doing ...

Meyer: Let’s talk about the region’s largest district, which is the Buffalo School District. The new superintendent, Pamela Brown, has talked about a very lofty goal. That would be to increase graduation rates to 80 percent within five years, which would be a stunning 30 percent increase. Is that pie in the sky in your estimation, or is it realistic?

Bennett: It could be realistic if they make the changes along the way in terms of central office becoming a support system to all the schools ... It can work if we expand career opportunities for kids starting as early as seventh grade. It can work if we have the highest quality leaders in each and every school, high expectations for the kids and full engagement of their families. Now that means you’ve got to have support systems around, which we have ...

Meyer: But when you talk about family support networks, you look at the socio-economics. There are so many students who don’t have that support network ...

Bennett: I’ve seen it throughout the state. If you have an extraordinary leader in the school, that means that they have reached out to the support network that is there in most communities – with counties, cities, towns, United Way, Catholic Charities – to develop a support network for those kids and never, never, never lower the expectations for that child.

Meyer: Let’s talk about rethinking the school calendar. Gov. [Andrew M.] Cuomo is talking about efforts to either extend the school year or increase the number of hours [a day], or both. There’s a small grant program for some select schools ...

Bennett: Nine years ago, with our study on time and learning, we said the current school day and school year is not sufficient to fulfill the obligations to get kids career- and college-ready. I’m totally in support of it. I think that there should be legislation passed that says the school day can go to 5 o’clock, they can be open on Saturdays and you need 20 more days of instruction.