Stand outside the Frank E. Merriweather Jr. Library at Jefferson Avenue and East Utica Street, with its overburdened computer stations and lines of kids waiting.
“Walk in any direction,” suggested parent advocate Samuel Radford III.
There are 10 public schools within walking distance or a brief bus ride, he said, but not one has an open, after-hours computer lab, and not one has a classroom seat reserved for a child who lives nearby.
That’s because the Buffalo School District promotes a school choice policy, which is now more than a decade old.
Increasingly, community leaders, Common Council members and School Board members are saying that doesn’t make sense. They favor a return to neighborhood schools, particularly in the elementary grades.
“If the result is, you get better educated students, then it’s worth considering,” Radford, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council, said of the current school choice model. “But if you bus children to integrate schools that they’re failing in, then what’s the point? Not only is there not any point, but it’s harmful to children.”
Not everyone – particularly those who fought to integrate the school system – believes that neighborhood schools are a key to fixing Buffalo’s education problems.
But more and more community and elected leaders say that busing children all across town as part of a legacy desegregation effort is a waste of money and time better spent elsewhere.
That position has found surprising advocates on all sides of the racial divide and is forcing some school leaders to walk a tightrope of advocating broader school choice, while at the same time promoting a narrower neighborhood school structure.
“That’s a really fair assessment,” said board President James M. Sampson, “that it’s inherently contradictory.”
As a Buffalo News analysis showed in April, city schools are just as segregated now as they were in 1972, when parents sued to integrate the Buffalo district. In the intervening time, proponents of neighborhood schools argue, schools have become more disconnected from their communities and have disenfranchised thousands of parents.
In a series of education forums held by the Council’s Education Committee from June 26 to July 31, focusing on solutions for Buffalo’s troubled schools, many listed a desire to return to neighborhood schools as a priority, said L. Nathan Hare, executive director of the Community Action Organization of Erie County. “If you have a problem, and you create medicine to solve a problem, and every year you look at the problem, the problem gets worse, and you keep taking more and more of the medicine,” Hare said, “at some point, you’ve got to be bright enough to say that I should stop taking that medicine and find some other medicine.”
Members of the board majority have also listed neighborhood schools as one of nine structural reforms they want the district to undertake.
Neighborhood school advocates aren’t necessarily promoting the end of citywide schools like City Honors or other specialized or high-achieving schools with admissions criteria.
But they do want to see the majority of struggling, general education elementary schools revert to a neighborhood or community model that can keep parents and children connected to where they live.
Council Majority Leader Demone A. Smith, chairman of the Education Committee, said he wants to see more resources devoted to neighborhood schools, particularly in prekindergarten through third grade, when parents tend to be most hands-on in their children’s academic lives and when children need the most academic support.
Ideally, he said, 60 percent of all school seats would be reserved for nearby families, he said. “They would have the first rights to a seat at a neighborhood school,” he said.
Meanwhile, board member Carl P. Paladino, known for his promotion of school vouchers and charter schools, said he’s also committed to the elementary neighborhood school concept.
“This is one of the smartest decisions we can make,” he said. “We need to sit and come up with a plan that’s reasonable.”
While he believes in keeping certain citywide schools intact, like those with specialized programs or those serving children with disabilities, he believes that the district should spend the coming school year developing a phased-in approach to revert all other schools back to a neighborhood format.
Sampson said he believes there’s broad consensus on the board and a lot of support within the community for renewed focus on neighborhood schools and that interim Superintendent Donald A. Ogilvie is in the process of doing an analysis of where children live now and where they’ll be living in the future.
That’s the first step in creating some kind of neighborhood school structure, he said.
Some community members, particularly those who helped shape Buffalo’s desegregation plan, don’t agree that neighborhood schools are the answer to chronic underachievement.
“If you’re talking about going back to neighborhood schools, you’re talking about black students and schools within the inner city being the last on the list in terms of services, teachers and everything else,” said former Council President George K. Arthur.
Frank B. Mesiah, president of the Buffalo branch of the NAACP, said good education is the result of good teaching and a good curriculum, not location. “There’s no assurance that parents would have any more control over the resources or the curriculum that they’re going to be taught, just by making it a neighborhood school,” he said. “It’s a good emotional argument for people who have an agenda.”
Smith and Radford don’t view the desegregation effort the same way. They draw on their own traumatic childhood experiences of being bused in the 1970s, having bottles thrown at their windows and getting menaced by white adults while waiting for public transportation when they were older.
Meanwhile, many East Side residents saw their former schools shuttered. Many swaths of the lower and upper East Side now have no operating school within walking distance.
Some have suggested that charter schools could fill in the gaps, although, by law, they can’t have specific attendance zones. That’s one of many issues that proponents of neighborhood schools would need to address.
Whatever plan is developed, leaders said, it should be part of a broader plan to improve district schools and would require support from City Hall. In addition, neighborhood schools would need to be community centers with resources – like computer labs – and services available to children after hours, they said.
Creating neighborhood schools alone won’t solve all of the district’s problems, Radford acknowledged. “There’s no silver bullet answers,” he said, before referring again to the current district structure.
“Let’s not waste resources on stuff that’s not working.”