State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. says he is taking the unprecedented step of forcing Buffalo to send students from two high schools to take classes outside of the district.
“Buffalo may simply be incapable of running a quality program in these buildings,” he said Thursday, referring to Lafayette and East high schools, where only roughly 1 in 4 students graduate. “Frankly, so far, they have not demonstrated any capacity to do so.”
The state denied Lafayette and East millions in federal school-improvement money and directed the district to pay to have some students educated by Erie 1 Board of Cooperative Educational Services, a regional education service provider that until now has served only suburban districts.
When asked why the state is focusing on Buffalo schools when other districts across the state also have schools with poor academic performance, King said Buffalo has had a long history of making poor excuses for problems that other districts share.
He was particularly outraged by some prior comments by members of the Board of Education indicating that King has been “picking on” Buffalo Public Schools when other districts also are struggling or doing worse. That kind of justification for poor performance is unacceptable, he said.
“That’s literally insane,” said the normally diplomatic and mild-mannered commissioner. “How can anyone make that argument seriously? That’s preposterous.”
King called what’s happening at some Buffalo high schools a “crisis” and “disaster.”
“Three-quarters of the kids don’t graduate?” he said in a frustrated litany. “That’s breathtaking. Breathtaking.”
In his letter to Superintendent Pamela C. Brown, King referred to the fact that the district has applied unsuccessfully three times to implement a federal intervention model at Lafayette and two times at East.
In addition, he blamed the district for not doing enough to enable Johns Hopkins University to take over as the lead managers of those schools next year, as originally planned. He said the district “has failed to create the conditions necessary” to allow Johns Hopkins to effectively implement its turnaround model at the two schools as required by education law.
“Far too many students have been educationally abandoned, their futures cast into distress by the poor academic services they have received,” King said. “I am compelled to take action. The steps I am taking today are unprecedented in New York State, but the situation at these schools, which continues to hurt hundreds of students, cannot continue.”
In his directive to the district, he said Buffalo must either:
• Enter into an agreement with Erie 1 BOCES to provide career and vocational programs to any student from East or Lafayette who wishes to enroll in such programs this coming school year.
• Enter into an agreement with a BOCES program to serve as the lead administrators of Lafayette and East, similar to the role that Johns Hopkins originally was supposed to serve.
A plan must be submitted by Aug. 12. If neither option is exercised, King said, he may recommend that the Board of Regents revoke the registrations of these schools and effectively shut them down. Though BOCES does not offer core academic classes at its career centers, King said, at least he’ll know the students are getting some quality vocational instruction.
“This is the first time that we have required an out-of-district opportunity for students,” King said, “but it’s clear, again, from [Distinguished Educator] Judy Elliott’s report and from the history of the last four years, that the district is simply incapable of providing a quality program there.”
Elliott, who was assigned to Buffalo by the state Education Department, did not speak directly to the issues at Lafayette and East but said she had broader concerns.
“Priority schools continue to struggle to receive coherent support from the central office,” she said.
School and district leaders expressed shock, surprise and anger over the commissioner’s letter.
“It should be below the dignity of the commissioner of education to make that kind of statement,” said Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore, who described King’s harsh comments as “offensive, despicable and wrong.”
“You have two faculties that I know have been working feverishly over the past year to put together a program for these students, and they’re not even given a chance to put the program into place,” Rumore said.
“I’m devastated, and so is the staff,” said Lafayette Principal Naomi Cerre, whose school provides instruction to a student population that is 70 percent immigrant and refugee. “We just left a conference in Baltimore that Johns Hopkins fully funded.”
A call to East Principal Casey Young was not returned.
Johns Hopkins had been working with both high schools and offering training this past school year to prepare the schools for a full implementation of the university’s turnaround model, which has proven successful nationwide.
Charles Hiteshew, who heads up Johns Hopkins’ educational “talent development” program for middle and high schools, offered nothing but praise for the staffs and leadership at Lafayette and East.
“Those schools have been tremendous partners to work with,” he said.
Regarding the central administration, he said, “It’s bureaucracy, but it’s bureaucracy anywhere. There haven’t been structural issues we haven’t been able to work through.”
Nothing in his experience would suggest that the university could not successfully serve as the lead administrators of Lafayette and East next school year, he said.
He added that Johns Hopkins already has established a six-member school leadership team in Buffalo, including three people who have relocated from Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and the Seattle area. The university was prepared to establish small learning communities at each school with teaching teams, an accelerated curriculum and early-warning system to keep students from falling behind.
Unless the state agrees to award the grant money to Lafayette and East, he said, “it will be pretty much impossible to deliver those resources.”
“For us to pull the plug on this at this time would be devastating,” he said.
Brown said that King’s letter took her by surprise and that there has been academic progress made at both high schools.
“I don’t have the commissioner’s historical perspective on this,” she said. “I can only talk about what I’ve seen in these schools over this past year.”
She said she hopes to meet with Deputy Commissioner Ken Slentz soon to gain more information on what motivated King’s letter.
“I know that the board members are also very anxious to get more information on how this decision has come about and what it will mean for the district,” she said.
She also noted that the district has nine schools that are being awarded federal turnaround grants this year and that the district just received word that its grant application for BEST School No. 6 also has been accepted.
Representatives with the state Education Department said the turnaround applications submitted by the district for Lafayette and East were “incomplete and insufficient.”
The district did not submit a signed agreement with Johns Hopkins as part of its application, even though the university signed off on its end.
King said the Buffalo district typically complains that the state’s rules and regulations are too confusing when its applications and proposals are denied.
“Every Buffalo problem is treated the same way by the district,” the commissioner said. “If they can’t figure out how to submit an approvable plan for improvement in these schools, then they are unlike other districts around the state that have figured that out.”
Meanwhile, Erie 1 BOCES Superintendent Donald A. Ogilvie said his organization is prepared to provide whatever services Buffalo requires. It costs about $7,600 in tuition for a student to take vocational courses through the BOCES program. Unlike suburban school districts that receive a state subsidy to offset the cost, Buffalo would receive none.
BOCES also would be willing and able to step in as the lead administrator for Lafayette and/or East under one of the two options offered by the commissioner, Ogilvie said. “We’ve talked about making this as seamless a transition as possible,” he said.