The Buffalo Public Schools are used to being in the spotlight, and this new school year will likely be no different.
With new district leadership, several schools in line for major overhauls and contract negotiations expected to resume with the teachers union, all eyes will be on interim Superintendent Donald A. Ogilvie and whether he can improve student performance.
Already, he faces barriers.
Despite a bump in the graduation rate, the number of students who finish high school in the typical four years still hovers around 50 percent. Results on state reading and math exams are even worse, with the most recent scores showing that just 12 percent of students are proficient in reading and 13 percent in math. Those results correlate with the overwhelming number of students considered to be living in poverty, a reality that manifests in the classroom daily.
Meanwhile, tensions on the School Board continue to dominate City Hall.
School leaders say what happens in the next year will largely set the course for the future of the Buffalo schools.
“I don’t think anybody in the district is ready to declare victory, even though there is progress,” Ogilvie said. “I think everybody’s aware there is still work to be done.”
Here are some of the major issues to keep an eye on:
The new school year comes with new leadership at the top, including Ogilvie and a majority on the Board of Education that is calling for radical changes in the district.
Ogilvie already has brought on a new chief academic officer, who inevitably will play a critical role driving programs and changes at the classroom level.
That will likely include a heightened focus on the Common Core, and more teacher training.
“I think the Common Core gets a bad rap,” said Linda Cimusz, the former Williamsville administrator Ogilvie tapped as his top academic leader. “As we look at the strategies, we haven’t encountered one thing we think is bad for kids. I don’t think the Common Core is the enemy. It’s the way it’s being rolled out.”
Ogilvie also has indicated he plans to work with Cimusz make administrative changes to his leadership team in the central office over the next month or two, as well as eventually hire a new deputy superintendent.
A number of Buffalo schools start the new school year hanging in limbo about their future.
In recent years, the district has struggled to come up with school turnaround plans that meet state standards, leaving several of its most struggling schools – including students and teachers – uncertain what will happen by the end of the year. District leaders and board members will have to go back to the drawing board to come up with new proposals for those programs.
• Bennett High School: The state rejected the district’s original transformation plan in April and forbade the district from enrolling any ninth-graders this year. Last week, a consultant’s relaunch recommendation for Bennett was accepted but not endorsed. The board is seeking additional proposals with the goal of phasing in a new plan for next school year.
• Martin Luther King Jr. Multicultural Institute: The district’s initial plan was to close MLK elementary school and reopen it this year as the Buffalo Medical Campus High School. But that plan was scrapped after Superintendent Pamela Brown left. The district is now under the gun to come up with a new plan to relaunch that school.
• Lafayette and East high schools: With the recent withdrawal of Johns Hopkins University as a partner at East and Lafayette high schools, the district will need to come up with a new way to assist these struggling students. That’s particularly true at Lafayette, which is composed primarily of refugee and other immigrant students.
Buffalo teachers have been working under the same contract for more than a decade, and Ogilvie and board members have all vowed to make negotiating a new agreement a priority.
The district will likely look for concessions from the union, primarily in health care and other fringe benefits. For years, district officials have sought health insurance concessions, including the elimination of the union’s cosmetic surgery rider, as well as other demands. Some have even suggested the new board majority is pushing more charters – which would likely lead to teacher layoffs – as a way to squeeze those concessions from the union.
Even then, negotiations will likely be a battle.
The Buffalo Teachers Federation had teachers picketing in front of Buffalo schools early Tuesday and Wednesday mornings. Union representatives also plan to picket at the next School Board meeting.
Both sides have been working with a mediator for the past few years, but earlier this year the BTF rejected his recommendations. They are now waiting for a new recommendation from the Public Employment Relations Board, although that will be nonbinding.
Members of the new board majority have said they want to increase the number of charter schools in the city, and some have already started encouraging more to open.
But it’s likely this will be a longer process than the board majority originally envisioned. So far, none have announced plans to open since the new board took over in July.
Some members of the board have been quietly courting the area’s more successful charters, trying to convince them to expand or even take over some of the district’s most struggling schools.
Meanwhile, the district faces the ongoing challenge of finding spots for students who have requested transfers out of its lower-performing schools, as they are entitled to do under federal law.
Many of the original goals and expectations to move students into schools in good standing under approved transfer plan were never met.
“The school choice plan totally failed last year,” said parent leader Samuel Radford III.
About 1,100 parents requested that their children be moved to a better school for this 2014-15 school year. The number of requests is about half what it was last school year, when more than 2,000 families had requested transfers. The district could only accommodate several hundred of them.
Parents have appealed to the state Education Department to hold the district accountable for its failure to move students since settlement discussions with the district appear to be going nowhere fast. Further appeals to the U.S. Department of Education may be possible.
The district also faces various compliance issues that were years in the making, Ogilvie said.
Last July, the school district agreed to review, revise and/or expand the admissions process and selection criteria at its criteria-based schools in order to resolve complaints filed by three parents with the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights in New York. The parents alleged the district’s admissions policy discriminated against minorities – especially African-Americans and Hispanics – by disproportionately excluding them from enrollment in the district’s criteria-based schools.
Per the compliance agreement, the district must retain a consultant this month to study and make recommendations on how to improve access for all students at the criteria-based schools. And by March 2015, school district officials will have to determine which corrective measures they will take. If the district doesn’t comply with all of the conditions, the civil rights office will resume its investigation.
Staff writers Sandra Tan and Deidre Williams contributed to this report. email: firstname.lastname@example.org