Pinnacle Charter School, shut down by the state last week, will reopen as a Buffalo public school, with district staff members who have been laid off getting the first chance at any jobs at the reconstituted school.
But while the unprecedented decision eliminates many logistical problems one week before classes start, it also raises a question: Is having the district take over good or bad for Pinnacle students?
While state officials cited low scores on state assessment tests as a primary reason for closing the East Side school, a Buffalo News analysis of test results for 2011, 2012 and 2013 show that Pinnacle students were making progress, and over the last two years performed on par with or better than students in the Buffalo Public Schools as a whole.
For instance, an average of scores on math and English tests this year – when tougher standards took effect – shows that 11.2 percent of the charter school’s students achieved proficiency, compared with 10.6 percent who reached that level in city schools.
Given that improvement and higher overall scores than the city district, why is the state closing Pinnacle?
“Performance was still quite poor,” and Pinnacle failed to meet its own benchmarks for success established when it was granted a charter renewal, state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. said Thursday.
“Pinnacle kids have improved in some areas, and they have declined in others, but Pinnacle kids have performed no better – and in some cases, worse – than kids in Buffalo public school,” King said during a visit to Erie 1 Board of Cooperative Educational Services in West Seneca. “Charter law is based on the promise to deliver on goals … for a strong academic performance, and they did not do that, and they still haven’t been.”
However, Pinnacle administrators point to examples in which students at the charter school performed dramatically better than their district counterparts.
For example, 22 percent of Pinnacle’s fourth-graders performed at a proficient level on 2013 math tests, compared with 10.2 percent of district students; and 20.6 percent of the charter school’s sixth-graders were proficient in math, compared with 10.7 percent of district students.
But only 3.3 percent of Pinnacle third-graders passed the English exam, compared with 12 percent of district students; and 13.5 percent of district eighth-graders were proficient in English, compared with 8.9 percent of Pinnacle’s eighth-graders.
Overall, The News’ analysis of 2013 test results in math and English for third- through eighth-graders found that Pinnacle students outperformed district students on five of the 12 tests; and the charter school outperformed the district on eight of the 12 exams in 2012, the year the state first tried to close the school.
But state officials said test results weren’t the only reason they closed Pinnacle. They also cited the fact that the school did not meet goals established in 2009 when the school’s charter was renewed for three years.
For instance, state officials said, the school set a goal of having 75 percent of its students achieve proficiency on state assessments, of having the gap between the school’s actual achievement and the 75 percent goal cut in half each year, and having Pinnacle students outperform “all students in the same tested grades in the local school district” each year. Pinnacle did not meet those goals.
With Thursday’s decisions, Pinnacle students this year will continue attending classes in the same Ash Street building they have grown accustomed to, but the school will operate as a district school, not a charter school.
The first day of school for those students is likely to be delayed until Sept. 9, rather than the Thursday opening for other district students, Superintendent Pamela C. Brown said at a special meeting of the School Board on Thursday.
“The school would reopen as an annexation of a school in the Buffalo Public Schools,” she said. “The students would be able to continue to be there in the same building.”
This is the first time in New York State that a failed charter school will be reopened as a district school in the same location and with the same students, according to an Education Department spokesman.
The Pinnacle board voted Thursday at an emergency meeting to annex Pinnacle to an existing school in the district, according to a document signed by the Pinnacle board’s secretary. Education Department officials had suggested that, district officials said.
Pinnacle’s board also agreed not to pursue litigation that sought to keep the school open as a charter. A court hearing had been set for Tuesday.
The Buffalo School Board voted unanimously to annex Pinnacle to a district school. Brown said the district has not yet determined which school that will be. The district owns several school buildings that no longer are in use.
The district will pick up the lease for 115 Ash St., likely through next August, said Barbara J. Smith, chief financial officer and chief operating officer. It’s not yet clear where the school will be located after that.
The district will begin interviewing candidates for school staff, officials said. First choice must be given to public school staff who have been laid off, according to union contracts. Pinnacle staff will be able to interview for any remaining positions, district officials said.
Pinnacle employs 56 teachers, according to the most recent state information. Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore estimates there are five or six teachers who have recently been laid off from the district who will be eligible for jobs at Pinnacle.
Thursday’s special meeting of the School Board had been called solely to address personnel issues related to four principals in the district. Because the Pinnacle plan was not on the agenda, the board had no legal standing to vote on it, but they did.
After the board met in executive session for about 70 minutes to discuss the personnel issues, President Barbara A. Seals Nevergold said the superintendent wanted to provide an update on Pinnacle.
After Smith explained the situation to the board and fielded questions, at-large board member Florence D. Johnson asked whether the board needed to approve the action.
“No, we don’t need to act on this,” Brown told her.
But State Education Department spokesman Dennis Tompkins later told The News that board approval is required.
During the meeting, Johnson pressed the issue, and the board voted unanimously “to approve this action on Pinnacle annexing it to a school to be determined.”