The last-minute conversion of Pinnacle Charter School into Public School 115 last fall initially was a hard sell for many parents.
After all, the state had shut down Pinnacle just days before the start of school, leaving parents with little time to wrap their heads around the conversion plan.
Still, many – like Rosemary Morales – started the school year with high hopes, primarily because Pinnacle was reopened as a district school in the same location and with the same students. A lot of the teachers transitioned, too.
Nine months later, many of those same parents – as well as hundreds more from Bennett High School and Martin Luther King Multicultural Institute School 39 – are in limbo or have watched their hopes turn to anger as the school year winds down.
Roughly 1,000 Buffalo students do not know where they will attend school in September, afraid their only choices, at this late date, will be some of the district’s poorest-performing schools.
Parents at MLK may have gotten a last-minute reprieve last week when the State Education Department reversed itself and said children could stay put. If the School Board takes the state up on that offer, that would remove last-minute uncertainty for more than 500 children but replace it with other uncertainties for the district – like the possibility of losing a $4 million federal grant for a new school project.
The turmoil surrounding the three schools has left parents to join protest rallies over the past two months to vent their frustrations about the district’s plans – two of which were rejected in full or in part by the state.
What’s more, infuriated parents say the district did not involve them in the decision-making process, even though the plans affect students at key points in their academic careers. Instead, they got surprised with plans the state raised serious questions about.
The upshot: For many families – the involved, conscientious families the district needs – a school year that began in turmoil is ending in turmoil. The inept planning has added to the perception of disarray in the district and further eroded their already shaky faith in the Buffalo Public Schools.
District officials have been working with the state for months, and it takes time to develop plans and for the state to respond, said interim Deputy Superintendent Mary Guinn. The district is working to place students, she added.
The problem for parents is that the decisions are coming too late in the year for their children to get into schools in good standing or into charter schools that have already filled up.
School officials chalk it up to bad timing.
“The response I would give to parents is the district was in the planning stages. The timing was unfortunate, and we are continuing to try to the best of our ability to respond to their concerns,” Guinn said. “Our central registration is constantly trying to accommodate the needs of parents. They can feel free to get in contact with central registration, and to the best of our ability we will place children in the school that they choose for them.”
That’s of little comfort to parents tired of seeing their children bounced around.
“When are they going to be in a school where they don’t have to worry about changing or moving? It’s too much for these kids,” said Morales, who has two youngsters at School 115.
A broken promise
Uneasy parents at School 115 were in for a surprise when district officials reneged on a decision to keep the kids together beyond the current school year.
On a Friday last September – three days before the first day of classes at School 115 – Rosemary and Luis Morales met with the new principal, Kevin Eberle, in a hastily planned meet-and-greet for parents.
All other district schools had started classes a day earlier on Thursday, but School 115 needed a little more time to get ready. On the following Monday, the failed charter school would reopen as a district school in the same Ash Street location and with the same students – the first conversion of its kind in the state.
The Moraleses were apprehensive about what the school year would bring for their children, Nashantylee, who was going into third grade, and Luis Jr., a fourth-grader. But by the time they came out of the meeting with Eberle, they were feeling good about the situation and could see a bright future.
But by the time April rolled around, the district had done an about-face on its intention to keep the kids together for the upcoming 2014-15 school year. Instead, school officials jolted parents with a plan to close School 115 and merge it with Harvey Austin 97 – one of the district’s lowest-performing schools. About 400 students will be affected.
Now the Morales’ initial optimism has all but disappeared, and they hold the Board of Education responsible.
“For the board to keep playing with these kids’ education, it’s out of control,” Rosemary Morales said.
Zakea Williams has two children who have been attending School 115 since it was a charter. Third-grader Antoine will be going to Dr. Charles R. Drew Science Magnet School, she said, while eighth-grader Tyree will attend a different charter.
Williams said she felt blindsided by the district’s latest plan for School 115. “They just ripped the scab off my bleeding wound. I was furious,” she said.
She had visited the school many times to learn about its future and plan accordingly, and as late as November staff was lauding possible alternative sites for the transition. Then in March, with less than 24 hours notice, parents were called to a meeting and told about the merger with Harvey Austin.
“Now I think they’re doing this to us again. We have adjusted to this new staff and this new culture of 115, and now they’re going to devastate our children,” Williams said.
Speech teacher Tim Aguglia said parents feel like they’ve been put on a roller coaster. They had little to no faith in the Buffalo Public Schools to begin with, which is why they enrolled their kids in a charter school. Now that faith has been further eroded.
“Parents might want to go back to charters,” he said.
That’s what Williams is doing for her eighth-grade son, who will be going to another charter school. Under the circumstance, she was relieved she was able to get her sons enrolled on such short notice.
“I was in a panic,” Williams said. “I found a solution ... but I’m not happy about it.”
Other parents aren’t so lucky. For them, it’s too late now to find a seat for their children in high-performing city or charter schools.
MLK’s dashed dreams
Dorothy Gray had been playing the waiting game since early March to see what would happen with her son’s school, Martin Luther King Multicultural Institute 39 on High Street, where Gray is a parent facilitator.
The district’s initial idea was to close the current MLK, which serves students in grade pre-K through eighth, and reopen it as Buffalo Medical Campus High School focusing on medical careers oriented for students in grades five through 12.
But the short-sighted, underdeveloped transformation plan – drawn up under state pressure to reform the school – threatens to slam the door on parents like Gray hoping to get their kids into that program, which could improve their chances for a career in the burgeoning medical field in Buffalo.
Last week the state reversed course, saying the pre-K through eighth-grade program can remain for another year at MLK after all. That decision came after Superintendant Pamela Brown announced her plan in March to transform it into the medical high school.
Then in April, the board won a $3.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to establish the medical high school. That transformation plan would displace roughly 400 elementary students currently enrolled at MLK, said Will Keresztes, district chief of student support services.
But late last month the state put a dent in the plans for the middle-school component of the new facility, calling that part of the program poorly planned and refusing to approve it for 2014-15. The medical high school could only be opened with ninth- and 10th-graders the first year. That left 100 to 125 current MLK fourth- and fifth-graders, who had hoped to be a part of the Medical Campus High School, forced to transfer elsewhere, bringing the total number of displaced MLK children to more than 500.
Now, with the state’s change of heart to allow the district to leave MLK open for a year, the School Board has to decide what do.
“If we keep MLK open, we’re not sure where the Medical Campus High School would go, if that jeopardizes that $4 million, and we won’t have additional seats in a school in good standing,” said School Board President Barbara Nevergold, referring to the fact that a brand new school could be opened as a school in good standing – which MLK is not.
Gray’s fourth-grade son is among the students in limbo until the board decides. She’s already been waiting since March, knowing that attending the medical-focused school would be a great opportunity for him, and not wanting to risk registering him somewhere else – like other parents did – only to find out the school would be relaunched as planned.
Two weeks ago, she got one answer, and it was not good: There would be no middle school in the MLK relaunched as Medical Campus High School.
“I’m not really in a good mood today because I’m sick of them making stupid mistakes and hurting our children,” Gray said in a telephone interview the morning she heard the news from one of the MLK teachers.
Central registration staffers were slated to return to MLK to assist families like hers who need help transferring their children elsewhere. But that did little to assuage Gray’s frustrations.
“Next week it’ll be something else,” she said at the time.
She was right. Now all MLK parents have to wait to see what the board decides to do.
No new Bennett classes
Soon-to-be-freshmen felt dejected after the state rejected the district’s proposal to transform troubled Bennett High School into a new school focusing on science and technology.
Jeremiah Sanders, an MLK eighth-grader, had his heart set on entering Bennett in September.
He had played offensive tackle for the high school team this past season after earning a special certification. As an incoming freshman, he could continue throughout his high school career.
But that all changed in April when the state Education Department rejected the district’s transformation plan for Bennett and ruled that the school could not accept any incoming freshmen this September.
State officials demanded the district submit a new turnaround proposal by Sept. 1 for the 2015-16 school year.
Now Jeremiah has no idea where he will be going this fall because by the time he and his mother got the news, it was too late to sign up for most other schools.
Arleen Sanders subsequently applied for him to Olmsted School 156 so that he could still play football for Bennett – which takes in players from that school – but they have not heard back yet from Olmsted as to whether he was accepted.
About 140 students other students like Jeremiah, who had applied for Bennett as freshmen, have to find new schools, according to Keresztes.
“Where are they going to go?” Sanders said.
Bennett’s persistently low academic results drew attention from the state, which required the district to submit plans to either close or radically alter the school’s programs for the next school year.
Then in March, Superintendent Brown announced plans to close and relaunch Bennett as a new high school focusing on science and technology. But the state rejected the plan as inadequate, just as it had done for the MLK transformation plan, and barred the school from accepting any freshmen.
Now students who had planned on attending Bennett are scrambling to find different high schools, though none in good standing with the state have any open seats left.
All of those schools, which have admissions requirements, were filled in February, district officials said.
“I really don’t know where’s he going,” Sanders said of her son and others in the same predicament. “It’s sad because it seems like they’ll shove them where they can put them, and that’s not fair either.”