Hundreds of Buffalo public school parents have been left frantically scrambling to find schools for their children this fall because the district backtracked on its pledge to open two new schools, as originally promised five months ago in an agreement with the state Education Department.
The latest casualties are the parents of students at the former Pinnacle Charter School. When the state closed Pinnacle in August because of low student achievement, the Buffalo School District took over the building at 115 Ash St., renaming it School 115.
In response to parent concerns, Superintendent Pamela C. Brown announced in December that all the Pinnacle students would be kept together in the next school year and housed in one of two new buildings that would open this fall as schools in good standing.
Now, however, it appears that none of the new Pinnacle students will be going to a new school in good standing with the state. Instead, they will be all be moved to Harvey Austin School 97, another chronically low-performing elementary school.
“I’ve got five calls this morning from people going crazy,” said Samuel L. Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council. “This is all last-minute stuff.”
Just last week, the district announced that it would not create a separate, new Buffalo Medical Campus High School, as originally planned, but instead launch the program in the existing Martin Luther King School 39 building, displacing hundreds of current elementary students there.
A brief letter was sent home to Pinnacle parents by Principal Kevin J. Eberle on Monday saying their children would be merged with those at Harvey Austin. If parents wanted to learn more, the note said, they should attend a meeting at 5 p.m. today.
“It’s just a bunch of crap to me. Excuse me, but it is,” said Edward Bell, the parent facilitator at School 115. “How are you going to have a meeting at the last minute? Many parents don’t get out of work until 5.”
He said Eberle was also upset to have received such short notice about the change. Neither of them was consulted regarding the school’s merger with Harvey Austin, Bell said.
The district’s dramatic change of course could result in ramifications with the state Education Department.
In October, the state approved a district plan designed to accommodate every parent seeking to move a child out of a struggling Buffalo school and into a school in good standing with the state. This school year, the district faced 2,200 such requests.
To accommodate a similar number of requests for 2014-15, the district submitted a student transfer plan that would open two new schools – one elementary and one secondary – that would accommodate 1,200 transfer students.
The plan also called for the closure and reopening of two existing schools that are underperforming. That goal would accommodate 600 additional students.
But on Monday, Brown said those two goals were not “firm commitments,” even though the district submitted 32 pages of detailed timelines to the state back in October indicating precisely how those goals would be met.
“There was always a recognition that all of those particular goals or strategies may not necessarily be implemented,” Brown said.
The superintendent informed the School Board in December of her plan to open two new schools in the fall, and close and “relaunch” three others: Martin Luther King Institute, Bennett High School and Harvey Austin.
But on Monday, she said that given a $50 million budget deficit and the inability of MLK, Bennett and Harvey Austin teams to approve any of the proposals recommended for the relaunch of these schools, she changed course.
As a result of the changes, the former Pinnacle students who were supposed to be transferred to a school in good standing this fall are now slated to be transferred to Harvey Austin, a school in bad standing. They may also attend a different school, wherever vacant seats still remain. However, the district’s on-time 2014-15 application period ended in December.
Students at Martin Luther King who are not old enough to be eligible for a middle school or high school seat in the new Medical Campus-themed school must also find somewhere else to go.
At Bennett, students can stay, but their current school will be phased out over the next several years as the district works with the University at Buffalo to put a new Science, Technology, Engineering and Math program in place there starting in the fall with ninth-graders.
“This all makes no sense,” Radford said. “This is not helping the kids in failing schools. You’re not creating any new capacity. You’re just doing musical chairs.”
Brown was unable to specifically state Monday how the district will find enough vacant seats this fall to accommodate all student transfer requests if no new buildings are opened and the district receives as many transfer requests as it did for this school year.
“We have kept the state Education Department apprised of our progress,” she said. “They have indicated to us that as long as we are following through with our plan, if there is a need to amend the plan or revise it, as long as we are working with them to meet the goals that we have set, they feel that we are implementing the plan.”