Even the old-timers and the toe-the-liners finally seem to be catching on. Maybe there is a glimmer of hope for Buffalo schools.
It was deep into Thursday’s special meeting of the Board of Education when self-described “senior member” Florence Johnson sounded what she thought was an alarm. Referring to the state’s force-feeding of a turnaround plan for Lafayette and East, two critical-list high schools, a concerned Johnson concluded: “If we permit this to happen with two schools, how are we assured it would not” extend to others?
Johnson is a bright, caring woman who unofficially serves as the board’s status-quo guardian. I don’t know if she is too close to the trees to see the forest or hopelessly devoted to a broken system. But a notion that apparently came as a shock to her – hey, state ed’s hand is reaching into the district! – was long overdue in the eyes of those with an unobstructed view.
You didn’t have to be Kreskin to see it coming. Half of the district’s 57 schools are on state ed’s critical list, with another 16 in trouble. What else did Johnson – or any other district-defender – think was going to happen?
Frustrated by the district’s repeated whiffs at writing a coherent turnaround plan for the two schools, State Education Commissioner John King Jr. finally tightened the screws. State ed officials insisted that the reinvention of East and Lafayette include the BOCES technical/vocational option, preferably with help from preliminary partner Johns Hopkins University.
Johnson was apparently shocked that state ed allowed BOCES – previously only a suburban-school option – to vault the district’s castle walls. Frankly, I don’t think King & Co. went far enough.
King last year rejected – after the board beat down – a proposal from a credible local group to restart East High as a charter school. Unlike other options, it would free the school of union rules that shackle creativity. It would have been a giant leap down Reform Road, far beyond the BOCES half-step. Unless things change, it’s only a matter of time until the state OK’s the charter restart option for “failing” schools.
Johnson and other gate-guardians would presumably be apoplectic if that happened. But the handwriting is on the chalkboard: Schools that keep “failing” will be taken out of the district’s hands. District officials have only themselves to blame. By failing to craft a coherent reinvention plan for the two schools, they forced King’s hand.
Though the district is sloth-slow and change-phobic, state ed’s performance-driven assault isn’t totally fair. Schools stuffed with poor kids from broken families – which is most schools in Buffalo – are bound to “fail,” if success is measured purely by test scores. Inner-city teachers have told me of classes where most kids have a relative or family friend in jail, or know of someone who has been shot. Seven of every 10 kids at Lafayette High are immigrants or refugees with little or no English. How are they going to pass a standardized test – and in what alternative universe should teachers be judged, and schools labeled, on whether they do?
A lot of this “failing schools” hoo-ha has more to do with inner cities stuffed with broken families and refugees than with “bad” teachers or revolving-door superintendents. But that’s no excuse for district officials who cannot craft a turnaround plan, who are their own – and the students’ – worst enemy.
Given the width and depth of the problem, any and every remedy should be tossed against the wall. BOCES today, maybe charter school restarts tomorrow. Memo to district dinosaurs: It has only just begun.