Something had to happen eventually at Lafayette and East high schools, and on Thursday, it did. State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. effectively ordered the Buffalo School District to surrender management of those schools.
Many questions are unanswered at this point – including the role of Johns Hopkins University – but if the issue is whom to trust in the argument over educating the students at these schools, then there is no question. King has credibility and the School Board does not. The Buffalo Teachers Federation, if it is possible, has less.
But for those who ask why King is acting now, there is a better question: How could he not? These two schools are sinking so fast they barely serve a purpose.
As King observed in a letter to Superintendent Pamela C. Brown, the graduation rate has plummeted at both schools since they were identified as persistently low achieving in the 2009-10 school year. East High dropped to a 27 percent rate from the previous 44 percent, while Lafayette sank to 21 percent from 36 percent.
“Buffalo may simply be incapable of running a quality program in these buildings,” King said Thursday. Blunt, perhaps, but also undeniable.
In response, King took what he identified as “unprecedented” action in ordering the district to take one of two steps. It can enter into an agreement with Erie 1 BOCES to allow any student from those schools to enroll in a high-quality career and technical education program, or it can take on Erie 1 BOCES as the Educational Partnership Organization for those schools, turning over to it the schools’ academic programs, budgeting, staffing, curriculum, scheduling and disciplinary decisions. In short, Erie 1 BOCES would run the schools.
In giving the district a choice, King is hoping to provide leaders room to create a productive approach while at the same time offering students the prospect of a decent education. Had the state simply closed those schools, the outcome would have been to send most students to other low-performing schools.
The decision to act came when each school presented yet another insufficient turnaround plan.
Among the deficiencies was a failure to include a signed agreement with Johns Hopkins University to serve as the Educational Partnership Organization for the schools, even though the university had signed off on its end. If Johns Hopkins was not going to be allowed to do the job, then someone else had to.
While Brown said the letter from King took her by surprise, she seemed to take its news professionally, saying she hoped to meet with Deputy Commissioner Ken Slentz for more information. Board of Regents member Robert Bennett is working to organize that meeting and hopes to be part of it.
By contrast, the head of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, Philip Rumore, was anything but professional, calling King’s comments “offensive, despicable and wrong.” Those are good words to describe graduation rates of 27 percent and 21 percent. As for King’s remarks – and his action – they seem right on target and, if anything, late in coming.
What happens next will likely depend on the meeting Bennett is brokering. The main issue will be which of the two choices the School Board will adopt. If members truly care about these students, they will take on Erie 1 BOCES as the schools’ Educational Partnership Organization.
That choice will not only put these schools in capable hands, but as a matter of course will also open the door to the other possibility, offering students career and technical education training at Erie 1 BOCES.
The clock is ticking. King gave the district one month to submit a plan. That’s time enough for the district to act responsibly while preserving for students the possibility that they can avoid wasting yet another year of their lives.