There are a couple of ways to look at last week’s humiliating trip to Albany by Buffalo school officials, who had been ordered there by State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr.
Like recalcitrant students summoned to the principal’s office, Superintendent Pamela C. Brown and her staff traveled to the state capital on Friday to be tutored on how to properly complete a turnaround plan.
The unvarnished good news out of this is that after an all-day session in which Buffalo’s school officials were provided with direct, hands-on assistance, turnaround plans for four city schools were completed in a fashion that is expected to gain King’s approval. They did it.
After multiple rejections of inadequate plans, the breakthrough delivered by Friday’s hand-holding comes as a relief. Students in these schools – Lafayette and East high schools, Buffalo Elementary School of Technology and Highgate Heights Elementary School – have been given a raw deal for years, their educations sacrificed to leadership that was either incompetent or indifferent. And in those possibilities lies the choice in how to view this development.
The glass-half-full view is that the problem has been one of competence. In that interpretation, the multiple rejections of previous plans can be traced to leadership that didn’t know what it was doing. If that was what it was, then assuming those who traveled to Albany were paying attention, that problem has been corrected. Future submissions will pass muster the first time and precious months and years of students’ lives won’t be thrown to the wolves. As painful as it has been, the district has turned a corner. Hallelujah.
We choose to take that view, if only because the alternative is too grim to entertain. In that scenario, leadership doesn’t really care much about students, at least not as much as it cares about going its own way. Pride or stubbornness was more important than following the state’s repeated and increasingly impatient instructions.
It is possible, of course, that both were true, and that the district’s repeated failures to submit acceptable turnaround plans sprang from incompetence and indifference. But, again, it’s a possibility too terrible to contemplate. School Board members serve for very little pay in Buffalo, certainly less than the average person charged with overseeing an enterprise worth nearly $1 billion a year. Why would they take on a thankless job if they didn’t care about the students in their charge?
Under Friday’s agreement, a team of educators from Johns Hopkins University will act as the operator – or superintendent – of the four schools, while the Buffalo Board of Education will be the monitor.
So, this deal is at least a start, but there is more to do. Other Buffalo schools are on the state’s list of under-performing schools and other challenges remain. In particular, the state is now reviewing Buffalo’s plan to allow students in under-performing schools to transfer to better ones. Many people expect that plan to be rejected, too. Again.
Now, though, the district is on a roll. If it wants to demonstrate its newfound competence – or at least its willingness to learn – it should be prepared if necessary for another trip back to Albany to get the transfer plan right, too. This is no time to lose momentum.