Dramatic changes in how students are picked for Buffalo’s most sought-after public schools – including City Honors and Olmsted – could be coming after state officials Wednesday approved plans to overhaul the schools’ admissions policies.
The changes will make more seats at the select schools available to more students – including students of color – by next fall. And for the first time ever, the School Board will approve the admissions requirements at the “criteria-based schools” and post the information on the district’s website.
The changes, announced to the board Wednesday evening by Superintendent Pamela Brown, address a long-standing complaint that the district has run a “two-tiered” educational system with most students shut out of the better schools, while those whose parents know how to navigate the system get in.
The plan to revamp the admissions criteria comes as the district is under pressure from parents and the state Education Department to seat 2,110 students who want out of failing schools and into schools in good standing. Opening more seats at the criteria-based schools is part of the effort to meet that demand.
“We’re delighted to say ... we can move forward,” Brown said Wednesday after getting the state’s OK. “We can continue to implement the goals and actions in the plan.”
But those aren’t the only winds of change blowing in the Buffalo Public Schools. After years of scoffing at the idea of charter schools, district officials now are seeking seats in charter schools for city students and also are planning to open two more district-sponsored charters by the 2014-15 school year.
The initiatives mark a sea change in a district that has long operated a few good schools while confining the vast majority of students to schools the state deems subpar.
Parents have become increasingly fed up, leading to the 2,110 transfer requests this year, far more than the district said it could immediately accommodate. It was the most transfer requests the district has received since the early 2000s, when the system was established.
So far, 345 students have been placed. The district expects that number to increase to 500 by Feb. 7, said Will Keresztes, chief of student support services.
The outlines of the Corrective Action Plan to deal with the remaining transfer requests – including reviewing the criteria-based schools and opening more charters – won state approval Wednesday after two previous versions were rejected as inadequate.
In addition to City Honors and Olmsted, the plan focuses on admissions requirements for the district’s other criteria-based schools: Hutchinson-Central Technical High School, Leonardo DaVinci High School, McKinley High School, Emerson School of Hospitality and the Academy for Visual and Performing Arts.
The goal is to increase capacity for “underrepresented populations,” which include students with disabilities, English language learners and – for some grade levels at specific schools – students of color.
“Schools will review their current entrance procedures and revise them as necessary to remove barriers to the admissions process,” Keresztes said. “Our goal is to eliminate confusion about entrance requirements.”
It’s similar to what the principals of City Honors and Olmsted 156 did in September, when they eliminated one admissions requirement at each school. City Honors got rid of its essay requirement; Olmsted dropped creativity tests.
“Even before the state brought this up, we worked on increasing capacity because we thought it was the right thing to do,” said City Honors Principal William Kresse, adding that enrollment at his school went from 812 in 2010 to 971 currently, “and we anticipate more growth.”
The current criteria for admission to City Honors are grades, attendance, teacher recommendations and cognitive ability assessments – or IQ tests – that examine how a child reasons, thinks and solves problems.
The requirements also include scores on New York State assessments in math and English. The school has a cut-off point for the assessments.
“If a child is performing so low that the district essentially is saying the child’s needs are so great that it would not be good to put them in an accelerated program,” Kresse said.
Students in pre-K through fourth-grade at Olmsted 64 are from the neighborhood or test in. Olmsted 156 is for fifth- through 12th-graders and children from 64 automatically float into it for middle school. However, to stay there for high school, the student must meet the same criteria as other students. Those criteria include the cognitive ability assessment, state math and English test scores, having at least an 85 percent academic average as well as parent and teacher recommendations about the child’s academic achievement, creativity and perseverance.
Criteria at the other schools range from not having food allergies at Emerson to auditions at Performing Arts.
The district will hold public meetings early next year at each of the criteria schools for community input on the review and revision process.
Leaders from the District Parent Coordinating Council say the move is the district’s way of correcting the problems of a two-tiered education system in which the district puts the best children in certain schools.
“Why does the district have certain schools that are always in good standing and other schools that are perpetually poor achieving?” said DPCC President Samuel L. Radford III.
“ ‘Criteria’ is how you keep people out. All of our top schools have a majority of white students. All of the failing schools have a majority of minority students in a school district ... that’s mostly African-American. How is it our top performing schools is where all the white children go?”
Whites make up 22 percent of the district’s 30,831 enrollment, according to its most recent state report card.
City Honors is 66 percent white, while most of the students at Emerson and Olmsted 156 – which are also in good standing – are minorities – 80 percent and 70 percent, respectively. Student populations were more balanced at two other schools in good standing, Hutch Tech and DaVinci, which were 59 percent and 60 percent minority, respectively. At the other schools in good standing, minority enrollment ranged from 18 percent at Discovery to 64 percent at PS 81.
While a lot of attention has been focused on the criteria schools, only five of the seven are in good standing. Performing Arts – 81 percent minority – is deemed a “focus” school, which means it has room for improvement.
McKinley, which is 83 percent minority, is a “priority” school, meaning it is among the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in the state, based on English and math scores and graduation rates.
Given the small number of schools in good standing, district administrators are proceeding with other parts of the plan to make more use of charter schools to accommodate the high number of transfer requests. District officials recently learned of vacancies in area charter schools, including West Buffalo Charter, where three students have been placed. The district will continue to place students in charters as spots become available.
The plan also calls for the district to open two new schools by September 2014. The schools could be operated as annexes to existing schools in good standing or be completely new, such as thematic schools, Keresztes said.
Another part of the plan focuses on closing two failing schools and reopening them as district charter schools in 2014-15. Requests for proposals to run the schools will be issued this month.
Under this scenario, the district must pay the schools a per-pupil fee. Discussions on what the funding would be are ongoing, administrators said, as funding formulas are still being worked out by the state.
District-sponsored charters are authorized by local school boards, typically have a memo of understanding with them for shared services, and a majority of parents must approve the conversion, Keresztes explained. Although they are autonomously developed and governed, the district has some monitoring and support responsibility, and staffers belong to local bargaining units.
District leaders have not always favored charter schools because part of the per-pupil funding follows the student.
Board member Mary Ruth Kapsiak also said students who switch to charter schools have problems and then return to Buffalo schools but fail to graduate on time, don’t count “in the charter school data ... it counts against Buffalo,” Kapsiak said.
District-sponsored charters, on the other hand, will have a team of people from the district that work directly with the school, Kapsiak said.