This train is heading into the station. Before it leaves, Buffalo needs to create schools where more kids get a shot at a better future.
This doesn’t happen by dismantling City Honors, Hutch-Tech and other high-performance, test-in schools. It happens by creating more schools that fit the skills, talents and interests of Buffalo’s schoolkids.
Controversy is coming down the tracks. Federal officials will investigate a complaint from a city parent that the district discriminates against nonwhite students, resulting in fewer of them attending City Honors, Olmsted and other high-achiever outposts.
It’s not a big surprise. There is a 2-to-1 white/minority ratio at City Honors, in a district that’s 77 percent minority. Many have long noted the district’s extreme nature – a dozen higher-performance schools, bookended by dozens of “failing” ones with low test scores and dismal graduation rates.
But, at the core, this is not about race. It’s about fairness. Sam Radford told me the civil rights action was necessary to raise the larger issue with the feds.
“We aren’t so much preoccupied with a disparity based on race, it’s a disparity based on education,” said Radford, head of the District Parent Coordinating Council. “You’ve got 12 good schools and 45 failing schools. We’re taking our high-performance kids and putting them in just a few buildings. We’re looking for a more equitable system.”
I get that. But the answer is not in drastically lowering standards at the high-octane schools. That would defeat their purpose: Intense, college-level courses that strain the largest of brains. One option is altering the basic model, to open the doors wider to these schools – or create more of them – without gutting standards or obliterating the college-track appeal. Along with it, create more “destination” schools that fit the interests and talents of particular kids, whether it’s arts or sciences, carpentry or math.
That’s how and why the district’s revolutionary magnet-school program started. Parents didn’t care if their kids were being bused across town, if the school fit junior’s needs and talents.
“I spent 30 years in Milwaukee, where they had magnet and college-bound schools,” said Jim Sampson, reform-minded School Board member, “but none of the kind of tracking that people here get offended by.”
It’s tough for anyone – richer or poorer – to navigate city schools. My Buffalo teacher wife and I ran the gamut of public, private and charter schools with my two City Honors alumni daughters, both now in college. For many middle- and upper-middle income parents, higher-rated schools like Honors, Hutch-Tech and Olmsted keep them in the city. If the programs were gutted, the presumed exodus would ding a city that has lost another 20,000 people the past 10 years. Yet all parents want a good school for their kids – and too many doors are now closed.
“We embrace the value that the greatest pathway out of poverty is a good education,” said Sampson, a business executive and a charter school advocate who heads the county’s fiscal control board. “We can’t lose sight of that.”
There’s no simple answer and – given racial and emotional issues – it won’t be an easy debate.
“I think all the criteria for assignments and placements is in question, and that’s a good thing,” said Sampson.
While Radford looks at one-size-fits-all suburban schools as a model, the city’s grinding poverty is an X factor. Studies show that the best predictor of school performance is the income and education of a kid’s parents. In a city where only one in four adults has a bachelor’s degree, and nearly three of every four schoolkids are poor enough to get a free lunch, even a magic wand won’t get you suburban-style results. There are simply too many kids – given the city’s disproportionate share of the region’s poor – whose needs and challenges can’t be fully remedied in a classroom. But clearly, the district has to do better – particularly since Say Yes obliterated the income barrier to a college education.
“We have to seize the moment,” Radford said. “We’re not committed to one thing or another. We’re just committed to not doing the same thing.”
The answer includes more college-track schools and magnet-school programs, to open more doors to opportunity.
“If an expanded magnet program is the answer, then I’m all for it,” Radford said. “But we want a discussion. We need creative ways to get us down the road.”
Let the journey begin.