The Buffalo School District’s agreement to review and then revise or expand the admissions process and selection criteria for its criteria-based schools, including City Honors, is worrying many parents while offering hope for others.
The district’s agreement came after three parents filed a complaint with the federal government about under-representation of minority students at the district’s eight criteria schools.
Enrollment numbers at City Honors, for instance, show that 38 percent of whites who apply are accepted, while 18 percent of blacks and 26 percent of Hispanics are accepted.
The evaluation will determine if the application processes for the schools pose barriers to students based on race. Then, a consultant will make recommendations and the district will have to tell the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights what recommendations it will implement and how.
For years, district parent Bryon McIntyre has argued that criteria-based schools discriminate against applicants based on race.
“Children of African descent, Hispanic descent, are taking the test and doing well but not given the chance,” McIntyre said. “And then they’ll be put into a low-performing school, where their skill set isn’t maintained or supported.”
Another parent, Tara Watkins, calls the agreement a “milestone.”
“It’s the next biggest thing since desegregation,” she said.
Diana Cihak is among parents who are baffled by the district’s agreement with the federal government to review the admissions process. Cihak, whose 15-year-old daughter attends City Honors, and other parents interviewed by The News worry the district will change the admissions tests and erode the standards for admissions.
“I don’t think there’s any City Honors parents that disagree that we’d love to have more diversity in the schools, but I think that starts with reaching out to the kids much younger – not dumbing down the test,” Cihak said.
The district has agreed that by next March, it will provide the Office of Civil Rights “the revised or expanded eligibility and selection criteria for each of the schools, incorporating the recommendations of the consultant.”
If the district changes the admissions process for City Honors, Olmsted 64 and Olmsted 156, Leonardo DaVinci High School, Hutchinson-Central Technical High School, Emerson School of Hospitality and the Academy for Visual and Performing Arts, more minority students may be admitted.
Almost all parents – whether they agree or disagree with the district’s decision – seem to share one concern: Why doesn’t the district have gifted programs in all of its public schools so students don’t have to compete for seats in curriculum-based schools?
“To me, it doesn’t matter what grade your child is in or what school they go to, they should have access to the same high-quality program,” said Wendy Mistretta, a district parent who lives on Buffalo’s West Side and has two children attending City Honors. She, too, was surprised that although the city school district’s enrollment is 70 percent minority, criteria-based schools have few minority students.
Mistretta believes the district needs to develop advanced programs districtwide.
“If we were really doing our job with educating our kids, then the minority kids would be 70 percent of the schools’ population,” she added. “And they’re not. So somewhere along the line, these kids aren’t getting access to the same high-quality programs that these other kids are getting.”
But the fact that mostly white students are in these schools has nothing to do with discrimination, says Denise Zilka, who is white, of South Buffalo. Zilka does not think changes are warranted. Her 16-year-old daughter did not get into City Honors after taking the admissions test four years in a row and currently attends Hutch-Tech. Zilka says she worked hard to prepare and send her daughter there.
“It’s not very hard to pick up a book at home or go to the library and teach your kid how to read,” she said. “I’m not rich. I’m a very low-income parent. I’m a single parent; I struggle every day. I mean, I don’t have the resources that some other parents do.”
Cihak says City Honors is for students who are bright and academically competitive. Like Zilka, she thinks race is irrelevant to the admissions process.
“My daughter is surrounded by a group of kids at City Honors who are all highly driven to be the best,” Cihak said. “They’re highly competitive, they’re self-motivated, and so they’re willing to go the extra 10 miles, not the extra mile, the extra 10 miles to be the best without anybody pushing them.”
McIntyre, though, believes the results of the district’s evaluation will show that racism has been involved in the admissions process.
“We’re glad that the Department of Justice has validated our concern as being real, not being fictitious,” he said. “Because, for years, we’ve bene saying this, and it’s just outright not fair.”