Buffalo school administrators keep saying they involve parents in planning, but parent activists keep turning up evidence to the contrary.
The parents’ latest complaint – which includes an accusation of forgery – contends that a majority of the district’s school-improvement plans were sent to the state Education Department with no parent input at all, despite rules calling for parents to sign off on them.
The Buffalo School District and each of its 56 schools are required to develop and submit individual school and districtwide improvement plans each year because Buffalo has such a high percentage of struggling schools.
To give these improvement plans the best chance of success, the state requires that all stakeholders – teachers, parents and other community members alike – play a role in each plan’s development and sign off on the final document.
But according to Samuel L. Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council, 34 of the 56 individual school plans submitted to the state included no parent signatures.
Every Buffalo public school principal is supposed to work with a “school leadership team” that includes parents in the development of a School Comprehensive Education Plan, or SCEP – a road map to improving student learning.
That plan includes a signature page with clearly stated instructions that “plan development must include all constituencies in the community” and that “by signing below, stakeholders acknowledge that they have actively participated in the development and revision of the SCEP.”
“The reason why they make a law to say that all stakeholders have to be part of the process is because the only way the plan actually works with fidelity is if you have buy-in from all the key stakeholders,” Radford said. “The consequence of circumventing that buy-in is that you don’t get something that can be implemented.”
But at a recent meeting of the parent council, Radford said, only a handful of parents said they were involved in the development of their school’s plan. Far more of them simply recalled being summoned to the principal’s office to sign a sheet of paper, if anything at all, he said.
In one extreme case, supported by evidence provided to The Buffalo News, it appears that school administrators forged a parent’s signature in an attempt to claim that a parent participated in the planning when she had not.
On the date when she supposedly signed the school-improvement plan, the parent was actually in the hospital, Radford said. The parent asked not to be publicly identified by The News for fear of retaliation against her or her children, but a News comparison of her signature with that on the plan showed obvious differences.
District officials responded that they have looked into this allegation and found it to be a “misunderstanding” between the principal and parent, which has since been resolved.
Debra S. Sykes, the district’s chief of strategic alignment and innovation, also said Radford may have overstated the number of plans lacking parent involvement because signatures were occasionally positioned in different places on the document.
In other cases, she said, the district was initially unable to get parent participation prior to the submission deadline for the school-improvement plans.
When the state investigated and raised questions about parent involvement in a letter to the superintendent last month, however, Sykes said principals were directed to make sure they reviewed and discussed the document with parents and other community stakeholders.
No school-improvement plans were changed, but updated signature pages with parental signatures were then submitted to the state Oct. 1 – after most had been submitted without parental signatures in September. “We made sure they reviewed with parents and did what they needed to do,” Sykes said.
State Education Department spokesman Jonathan Burman said the department received a response from the district after seeing a “lack of evidence” of parent involvement and demanding some written proof.
“We are reviewing that information right now and hope to complete our review shortly and present next steps at that time,” he said Tuesday.
The state also required the district to offer proof that the parent council was involved in developing the districtwide Comprehensive Improvement Plan.
The parent council was supposed to sign that document, as the law requires, Radford said, but instead, the district obtained signatures from other parents who are less critical of Superintendent Pamela C. Brown’s administration and unaffiliated with the official parent organization.
That sort of example trickles down to the schools and ultimately hurts students and parents, Radford said.
“In Buffalo, the vast majority of teachers who teach in the system, and the principals, they don’t live in the city, and they don’t have children in the district,” Radford said. “In a lot of cases, the only person who lives in the community and has children who are affected by the plan are the community representative and the parents on the district leadership team.
“When you don’t have their input, the plan now is skewed.”
In light of this and the parent group’s continuing dispute with the district regarding its plan to transfer students from underperforming schools, Radford said the parent council has filed a formal appeal with State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr., asking for further state intervention.
These appear to be separate issues, Radford said, “but collectively, they show a pattern of something. And most importantly, parents and children are getting the consequence of whatever this pattern reveals.”