It is hard to find someone in the state Education Department who can recall a time when a frustrated commissioner ordered a local school district to report to Albany because the district needed help in developing acceptable plans on its own.
But when Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. determined that oft-rejected turnaround proposals for four Buffalo schools were still too weak to be approved by his department, he may have set a precedent when he summoned Superintendent Pamela Brown and her staff to Albany on Friday. The goal was for state officials to provide direct, face-to-face assistance to the district.
“It is rare” that a commissioner commands a superintendent and her staff to come to Albany to learn how to submit acceptable plans and applications, said state Education Department spokesman Jonathan Burman.
But by the end of Friday’s all-day session, which lasted until about 5 p.m., the turnaround plans for poor-performing East and Lafayette high schools had been “properly completed,” said Regent Robert Bennett.
So were the grant applications for turning around Buffalo Elementary School of Technology and Highgate Heights Elementary School.
All of the documents were awaiting King’s approval and signature, said Deputy Commissioner Ken Slentz in a telephone interview Friday evening. “The Buffalo contingent was there for about seven and a half hours,” Slentz said. “By the end of the day, after extensive technical assistance from the state department’s team, we have documents in a condition we felt we can provide a recommendation to” King.
Although Bennett and Slentz responded to Buffalo News questions about the meeting in Albany, Superintendent Pamela Brown did not respond, despite several attempts to reach her. This is the fourth time that the district has submitted the plans to the state, Bennett noted.
The proposals that were worked on Friday involve a team from Johns Hopkins University acting as the operator – or superintendent – of the four schools, while the Buffalo Board of Education will be the monitor, Bennett said.
The Buffalo team still has a few outstanding, nonsubstantive issues to address, such as date changes and accurate data, Slentz said. The district will be working on that early next week.
So as long as King approves the plans – which is “almost certain,” Bennett said – Buffalo school officials will have less than two weeks before the start of the 2013-14 year to begin rolling out the turnaround plan.
Parents were cautiously happy to hear the news.
“I hope we’ve learned something, and this means in the future we won’t be getting applications rejected,” said Samuel Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council.
“We’re relieved the plans have been accepted, and we can move forward with this,” said Jessica Bauer Walker, a vice president of the parent council and member of the Strategic Plan Steering Committee.
“There’s multiple issues we’re dealing with so I’m glad this is resolved so we can move onto another one,” she added.
One of those issues is a school choice transfer plan for the upcoming school year that has not been approved yet by the state.
Last week, the district submitted its “Public School Choice Corrective Action Plan” to transfer roughly 2,200 students from struggling city schools into schools in good standing with the state, which has labeled 42 Buffalo schools as failing. But only 300 to 500 of the transfer requests can be accommodated. The remaining 1,700 to 1,900 will be stuck in schools the state deems not up to par.
A decision from King on the proposal has been delayed but is expected in the coming days, Burman said.
The Buffalo contingent that traveled to Albany on Friday included Brown; David Mauricio, one of the district’s chiefs of school leadership; Associate Superintendent Debra Sykes; and interim Deputy Superintendent Mary E. Guinn.
Brown and her staff originally were expected to head out to Albany on Thursday to meet with the state Education Department as King directed, but Brown delayed the trip by one day in order to accept an invitation to meet with President Obama during his visit to Buffalo.
The school district group was accompanied by some members of the Johns Hopkins team that will lead the turnaround of the four under-performing schools, including Tamara Branch, field manager, and Darlene Jefferey, school transformation facilitator.
The state officials who worked side by side with the Buffalo group included Slentz; Assistant Commissioner Ira Schwartz; Owen Donovan, from the Office of School Improvement; and Alison Bianchi, deputy counsel.