State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. says he’s not convinced the Buffalo School District is capable of turning around its struggling schools despite extraordinary intervention and technical resources provided by the state.
“No, I don’t have confidence,” King said in a meeting with The Buffalo News Editorial Board. “I am optimistic that we can provide good support, but ultimately the district has the responsibility to raise performance.”
He also said the state is seriously considering further intervention in the Buffalo Public Schools if student performance doesn’t improve.
Over the summer, King took the unprecedented step of mandating that the district partner two low-performing high schools, Lafayette and East, with Erie 1 Board of Cooperative Educational Services. But months later, King said, he remains troubled.
“We remain very concerned about Lafayette and East,” King said in the meeting with News editors and reporters before Thursday evening’s education forum at WNED studios. “We have a plan from the district and from Johns Hopkins about what they intend to do. But we are concerned about the progress so far.”
Johns Hopkins University is serving as the lead educational partnership organization, or EPO, with the primary responsibility for improving the academic performance at both schools.
King singled out Lafayette as a school that is doing too little to assist its largely immigrant, English-language-learning population, and to provide appropriate teacher training.
After meeting with The News Thursday morning, King and Regent Robert Bennett visited Lafayette High School. Both sounded more optimistic afterward about the classroom environment there.
“I was encouraged by the conversation with the principal,” King said, “and with some of the things I saw in the classroom.”
He also said, however, that he wasn’t taking back any of his original remarks about his concerns about Lafayette.
In October, state Education Department administrators visited a number of city schools that have received federal school turnaround grant money. The results of those observations have heightened King’s concerns, he said.
Department officials visited Bennett and Lafayette high schools and Martin Luther King School 39 as part of their routine review of low-performing “priority schools” in the state. But their concerns were so serious that the team quickly returned to Buffalo to recommend immediate changes at the three schools prior to issuing a written report.
When asked whether the district can expect to face more direct intervention by the state if the situation doesn’t improve, King responded, “The short answer is yes.”
If a targeted school is not yet under the supervision of an outside educational partner, King said, he may require it. But if a school already has such a partnership in place but is still not making satisfactory improvement, he said, he may intervene in other ways. He referred to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s intention to strengthen the state’s authority to deal with chronically poor-performing schools, which is expected to be laid out in his State of the State address in January.
King also referred to a State Legislature bill that would give the Board of Regents the ability to take control of failing school districts. While the bill has languished for years, King said, he’s optimistic that it may gain traction in light of Cuomo’s new education reform agenda.
King indicated that while it is premature for the state to cast judgment on whether city schools are improving, the schools remain under close watch by the state.
The commissioner did note actions taken by the School Board on Wednesday to create a new Medical Campus High School and a new advanced manufacturing magnet program at Burgard High School. The moves are part of a district effort to improve vocational and career program offerings to students.
“It strikes me as promising that they are moving towards that,” King said.
The state placed pressure on the district to review its existing vocational class offerings to students when King required that Lafayette and East high schools partner with Erie 1 BOCES over the summer and cover all student tuition costs.
Since then, however, a relatively small percentage of those students have actually enrolled in the BOCES programs. BOCES Superintendent Donald Ogilvie said last week that while 77 students originally enrolled, that number has since fallen to about 66.
Of that number, about 40 students come from Lafayette, and 26 come from East, he said.
Ogilvie also said the logistics and communication challenges associated with getting students enrolled, and student concerns about their ability to graduate on time left BOCES without a final roster in place until Nov. 1, two months into this school year.
King said Thursday his requirement that all students be given the opportunity to take vocational and career classes at Lafayette and East is not the key to greater student achievement for everyone, but he hopes his directive has led the district to make more promising changes.