There are answers, and you don’t have to look far to find them. If leaders of the Buffalo School District are alert, they cannot help but find ways to deal with the problems that beset education here.
The Buffalo News, in part of an ongoing series of education stories, highlighted another success story last week. In Newark, N.J. – practically the American prototype for urban decay – Essex County Vocational Technical Schools are graduating 96 percent of their students, many of them earning professional licenses. With 85 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches, and almost all of them minorities from high-poverty urban areas, the demographics are similar to Buffalo’s.
Essex County Vocational Technical Schools don’t simply prepare students for a job; they teach them the academics needed and show how they apply to real-life projects. The result is a level of engagement that, if it doesn’t guarantee success, at least makes it far more likely.
And there is more. Boys dress in shirts and ties. That helps to set a tone of seriousness by dispensing with the clothing issues that can be immensely distracting to teenagers. They work together on projects that include building robots and experimenting with green energy – both industries of the future.
In the Technology Enhanced Active Learning Center, students largely work on the own or in small groups on in-depth projects. They manage their own schedules – itself a valuable skill for students to learn – while teachers in core subject areas circulate the room, making themselves available to students.
Students sample their school’s different career offerings in ninth grade, then choose an area to focus on over the next three years. Not only does the overwhelming percentage graduate, some 88 percent go on to two- or four-year colleges, while 8 percent graduate straight into a job.
That’s success, especially as it compares to Buffalo, where career education is mostly an afterthought as opposed to a comprehensive program aimed at launching profitable careers. The difference between the districts is most glaring in the graduation rates – 96 percent in the Newark schools compared to around 50 percent in Buffalo.
Can Buffalo do that? Plainly, although it needs some help from Albany. In New York, graduation standards require students to pass five Regents exams. That prevents many students – especially those who are behind academically – from taking vocational classes. To change that, the Board of Regents needs to act. Given the success in New Jersey, the Regents would be irresponsible not to look closely at such a program.
The other need is for Buffalo school leaders to be aware of such an option and to be open to examining it as a model for Buffalo. The good news is that the district’s new School Board and administration are openly and vocally committed to making a change in the district. It could happen, but there are pitfalls.
One is that, for years, the district has been forced mostly to put out fires rather than build for a future that serves the district’s students and the community at large. Those fires continue to crop up, so the School Board and Interim Superintendent Donald A. Ogilvie will have to take the time to look beyond the smoke and set off in a productive new direction.
The board is also going to be bombarded with ideas for the future, some better than others. It will need to evaluate them carefully to avoid easy paths that lead nowhere useful. The Newark model is demonstrably useful. Even the students see it.
Langston Tisdale II is a senior at Newark Tech. His father has good work as a corrections officer and the family is at least comfortable. But Tisdale sees more for himself.
“Middle class is nice,” he told News reporter Tiffany Lankes. “But I think I can do better.”
That’s the American dream, and in Newark schools, it is alive.