Here is the conundrum facing Buffalo Public Schools: The district is receiving record levels of support from the public and private sectors, but the needle is hardly moving on its performance.
So here’s a question: How long will the Good Samaritans of public education want to continue devoting time, money and passion – none of which is inexhaustible – before concluding that their efforts would be better directed to any of the hundreds of other school districts that are failing their students? Someone else can always use the help.
The level of resources available to the district is almost overwhelming, and it begins with a solid increase in aid to education in the just-passed state budget. Buffalo’s take will be an additional $15.65 million, or about 3 percent. How useful that will be to students is debatable, given that New York already spends more per pupil than any other state and still shows poor results. Still, it’s better than a loss in funding.
But that’s not even the best of it. It seems you can hardly take a breath anymore without a private organization with a track record of success offering substantial help to Buffalo. The most recent offer came on Wednesday, when the Hillside Work-Scholarship program announced plans to ramp up its efforts to serve at-risk students in Buffalo.
The program is the child of the Wegmans Family Charitable Foundation. It also operates in Rochester, Syracuse and Prince George’s County, Md., working with more than 3,500 youths in those places. In Buffalo, the program now works with 180 students, with plans to double that number within the next three years. To that end, the foundation will match any dollars the Buffalo School District puts toward the program, said CEO Danny Wegman.
The program encourages underachieving students to graduate by having them work closely with paid youth advocates. Those who meet high standards can enroll in a job readiness program, with a job likely in the offing. In Buffalo, those jobs are provided by Wegmans, Delta Sonic and – evidence of good intentions – Wegmans’ main competitor here, Tops. It’s a creative and forward-looking program that can change the lives of students who want something more than the diminished prospects they perceive.
The announcement of this program expansion falls hard on the heels of plans to establish the Buffalo Arts and Technology Center. Its goal is to train the unemployed and underemployed for jobs in high demand in the medical field. Trainees will be schooled in health science careers targeted at positions where vacancies exist. It is modeled after entrepreneur Bill Strickland’s Manchester Bidwell Corp. that was founded in Pittsburgh and has expanded to several cities, including Cleveland, Cincinnati and San Francisco.
And, of course, Buffalo has already attracted the commitment of Say Yes to Education, which promises a paid college education to students who graduate, and the Promise Neighborhood program. Leaders of these programs have expressed a commitment to improving education in Buffalo, and while each of them holds the potential to make a significant difference in the lives of Buffalo’s students, their work can be stymied in a district that often seems immune to improvement.
In a visit to Buffalo last week, State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. said he is worried that promises made by Buffalo school leaders are not being kept. He was specifically speaking of $19.1 million in federal grants for four Buffalo schools. The money was intended to dramatically and quickly improve student performance. It hasn’t happened. That money appears to have accomplished little to nothing.
In addition, the report by Distinguished Educator Judy L. Elliott, appointed by King to work with the school district, documents continuing failure. Most observers would allow that it will take time to see significant district-wide improvement, but it should not have been unthinkable to see greater strides made under the leadership of Pamela C. Brown, the district’s freshman superintendent.
So, back to the question: How long will Buffalo’s private sector volunteers want to remain if the district, including the Buffalo Teachers Federation, doesn’t show itself capable of improvement? We have no reason to think any of them are contemplating departure, but eventually? Who knows?
This is a moment unlike any in the history of Buffalo schools. It is imperative not to squander it.