How are things going in the Buffalo Public Schools?
It all depends on who you ask.
The superintendent says that while work remains to be done, the district is on a solid path to recovery.
Pamela C. Brown points to various data to support that contention: student attendance has improved, she says; short-term suspensions have decreased; Regents exam results have improved; and more high school seniors are applying to college.
“At this point, I feel a lot of progress has been made,” she said.
The distinguished educator appointed by the state sees things differently.
Half the schools in the district are considered among the worst in New York, and the principals in those buildings still get little help from City Hall, Judy L. Elliott says. There's no plan yet for how to compensate for federal improvement grants once they run out. And the city's two-tiered school system remains in place.
“There's very little evidence that things have changed in the schools,” Elliott said. “The principals will tell you: 'Rome is burning.' That's a quote they use all the time in meetings.”
Their differing assessments of the district were laid out in a 19-page report filed with the state Education Department at the end of January and then expanded upon in interviews with The Buffalo News. The report – a joint effort between Brown and Elliott – was released publicly about a week ago.
Local and state officials alike are trying to downplay the significance of the report. It was the first quarterly update filed by Elliott with state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. since he appointed her to help Buffalo figure out ways to improve student achievement.
Over the past two months, The Buffalo News requested a copy of Elliott's January report on about a half dozen occasions from the state Education Department. (Both Elliott and Brown had said only King could release it publicly.) Each time, a state Education Department spokesman responded either by saying he would check on its status or that the report had not yet been finalized and could not be released.
The reason the release of the report was delayed is unclear.
Brown, who has been superintendent since July, said the release of the report was stalled because this is the first time that any district has had a distinguished educator, so she and Elliott and were configuring the process as they put the report together.
Elliott and Bennett said that in a meeting in Albany about two weeks after the report was filed, Brown requested the chance to file a response to the report. Officials waited for her response, but she never filed it, they said.
“The superintendent wanted to give a response. That was our understanding,” Bennett said. “But there was a misunderstanding. There was no response forthcoming.”
The report was filed in the form of a chart, corresponding to the 39 “deliverables” that Elliott outlined in her initial action plan, which she filed with the state in October. In the update filed in January, Brown provided her account of the progress the district had made toward each item as of Jan. 30, and Elliott provided her comments on each one.
Among the items Brown highlighted as evidence that the district is moving forward:
• Short-term suspensions decreased 21.8 percent at the end of December 2012, compared with the same point in time a year earlier.
• Student attendance in the 28 “priority schools” – the latest state designation for the lowest-performing schools – had improved about 2 percentage points, to 90.8 percent.
• Principals now meet every month to discuss concerns, and the district has provided them with training sessions on a variety of topics, including how to use data to drive instruction and how to meet the state's new Common Core learning standards.
In an interview, Brown cited other signs of progress. Results from the January Regents exams show improved results districtwide in five of seven subjects, she said. More than 90 percent of graduating seniors have applied to at least one college, she said.
Among the concerns outlined by Elliott in the report:
• The attendance gains reported by the district may have been inflated as the result of a new attendance-tracking system, which automatically counts students as being in class unless the teacher marks them absent. If a teacher forgets to take attendance, all the students are marked as present.
• Principals are not required to attend the training that has been provided – and the district generally lacks a means of determining how effective the training sessions are.
• The district is about to lose several million dollars a year in federal grants for four of Buffalo's lowest-performing schools – but there is no clear plan in place on how to compensate for the loss of those funds.
Four schools are in their third and final year of federal school improvement grants. Buffalo received an average of $1.6 million per year, per school, to fund a variety of things, from teacher training to after-school tutoring programs at Martin Luther King Jr. Multicultural Institute, International School 45, Bennett High School and South Park High School.
• Huge disparities continue to exist between low-performing schools and other schools, such as City Honors and Hutchinson-Central Technical High School, that have admissions criteria – and the district does not seem to have a strategy for addressing those disparities.
Elliott and Brown agree on the need to restructure the central office – though in the January report, Elliott noted that no progress had been made toward doing that. Many of the same administrators have served in City Hall for a number of years, leading some to surmise that any substantive change in the district will have to involve replacing many of those administrators.
Brown said late last week that she plans on Wednesday to roll out her plans for reorganizing the central office.
Three foundations – the Oishei Foundation, the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, and Say Yes to Education – have collectively donated more than $550,000 toward a contract with a consulting firm to help the superintendent determine how to restructure central office.
“We have 34,000 kids in a system that is broken,” said Blythe Merrill of the Oishei Foundation. “We need the right people in the right places to make sure those academic standings are improved.”
Part of the contract with Cross and Joftus, the consulting firm, includes the services of an interim deputy superintendent.
Mary Guinn, a former superintendent of Gary, Ind., started in that role last Monday. She is not an employee of the district, Brown said, but an employee of Cross and Joftus. “She works with the district, but at this point in time is not an employee of the district,” Brown said.
The superintendent said she selected Guinn on the recommendation of Cross and Joftus.
“She comes, certainly, with an extensive background, as a former superintendent and having served as deputy superintendent in two other districts,” Brown said. “She's already a tremendous asset to the district.”
In addition to helping with the restructuring of central office, Guinn will help identify a permanent deputy superintendent, Brown said. Guinn plans to work in Buffalo until the end of June.
Guinn served as superintendent in Gary for more than five years, until 2004, when the board voted not to renew her contract, citing declining test scores as a factor in the decision.
She then worked in Tulsa, Okla., where, after five years, she lost her post as deputy superintendent in a restructuring. Private donors covered the $188,000 cost of buying out her contract, according to news reports.
In September 2011, she was named head of Esperanza Charter School in New Orleans. She resigned after six months. An official with the charter school group she worked for was cited in a news story as saying that the school's board “had doubts about the school's goals under Guinn's stewardship.”
Last week, Guinn was named as one of five finalists for the superintendent post in Monroe, La., a district about the size of West Seneca that she once worked in.