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Making the grade on state assessments

   For years, eighth-grade scores on state assessments have been in the basement.

   The slump seems to strike just about equally, regardless of students' gender, race, geography -- or even how well they did on assessments in elementary school.

   By the time kids reach middle school, teachers say, they have figured out that doing poorly on a state test won't hurt them much. And they are too distracted thinking about other things to care much or try too hard on a state test, most educators say.

   Several local districts have decided to make the state tests more consequential for students. In some places, students who score high enough on a state test are exempt from the final exam. In other places, all students' grades on the state test is used as their final exam grade.

   In schools that have taken such steps, educators say scores have risen substantially.

   But some people say these sorts of strategies misuse the state tests, which were meant to measure school performance, not be used to determine student grades. What's more, critics say that sort of bribery does nothing to improve student learning.

   What makes sense to you?

  -- Mary Pasciak

The job of managing difficult students

   It hasn't been an easy year in the Allegany-Limestone Central School District.

   Some parents believe the district is not keeping their children safe -- that special needs
students should be kept from disrupting other students.

   The parent of one special needs student believes other parents are unfairly trying to get
his child kicked out of school.

   Where do the rights of one student intersect with the rights of others?

   -- Barbara O'Brien

The state aid/school district dance continues

Why do school districts complain so much about a possible loss in state aid?

It's because they're so used to getting more that they've gotten out of practice with making due, or even cutting costs, says E.J. McMahon, director of the fiscal think tank, the Empire Center for New York State Policy.

But school administrators say it's because the cost of items they pay for are going up faster than the rate of inflation, and they have no control over many of them, such as health insurance and pensions, or wage increases that have already been negotiated. And they've used the money to lower class sizes and help students increase academic success, they say.

This year, federal stimulus money should mean districts won't have to make any painful decisions that would have resulted from less state aid. But you have to think that while they have delayed the pain, it isn't going away for good.

— Barbara O'Brien

Read the full story.

Signs of improvement in Buffalo schools

   The Buffalo schools had something to celebrate on Monday.

   Six of 16 city schools that had been on the state's list of badly underperforming schools were removed from the list because of improved student test scores in English and math.

   Clearly, victory has not been declared in the long-struggling city schools. Ten Buffalo schools remain under registration review, and they are the only ones in Buffalo Niagara on that list. And the city's high school graduation rate is a dismal 46 percent.

   But school officials feel that are finally … and solidly … on the right track. As they see it, improvement in the elementary and middle schools will filter into the high schools, where more Advanced Placement and foreign language classes have been added.

   Robert M. Bennett, chancellor of the State Board of Regents, expressed "pleasure and congratulations" on Monday's success, and urged school officials to get the remaining 10 schools off the list so "we can celebrate that as well."

   Are there more celebrations ahead for the Buffalo schools?

   --- Peter Simon

The century mark for kindergarteners

On the first day of school, 100 days seems like an incredibly long time for a 5-year-old.

But today pupils are more than half way through the 180-day school year, and it is the first day that seems like a long time ago.

At this point in the year, they have the routines down, and the reading-readiness skills are making way for reading.

The Buffalo News is checking in occasionally on Rachel Scharf of West Seneca, who is enjoying her first year of school. She and her classmates had fun recently marking one of the milestones: 100 days of school. It's one of those fun days that helps make the year memorable.

--Barbara O'Brien

Read the full story.

The teachers strike back

Relations between the Buffalo Teachers Federation and Buffalo Public Schools' administrators and the board are now affecting the school year itself, as Peter Simon reports in a story today.

With Labor Day as late as it can be this year, on Sept. 7, some suburban school districts are breaking with tradition and starting classes before the holiday. Buffalo officials planned to do the same.

However, the teachers' union's governing council “overwhelming rejected” the proposal, not because it considers it a bad idea, according to union president Philip Rumore, but because of  “anger and resentment” toward school officials.

Rumore stresses that children would get the same number of instructional days during the school year under either calendar, but that they would be distributed differently. But Superintendent James A. Williams says an earlier start would give pupils two more school days before state assessment tests are given in January, and also be a boost for the district's athletic program.

So, while the adults in the school system continue to bicker like kids on a playground, the children could suffer.

(This is usually the point where someone steps into the scuffle and tells both parties it is time to settle their differences and try to get along, for everyone's sake ...)

It gets personal between Rumore, Paladino

   We've all witnessed the schoolyard brawls that erupt when some kid blurts out: "Oh, yeah? Well, your momma wears army boots!"

   The head of the Buffalo teachers' union claims he was subjected to a similar personal attack. But it wasn't a playground bully doing the heckling, according to Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore. It was Carl P. Paladino, a prominent developer and crusader for educational reforms.

   In a long-festering dispute over health insurance for teachers, the two community leaders exchanged biting letters Wednesday. Rumore was incensed that Paladino made mention of Rumore's mother -- who died recently -- in what he called a "vicious and ugly letter."

   Rubbish, said Paladino (although he used more colorful words), claiming there wasn't a single sentence in his letter that disparaged Rumore's mom. If anything, said Paladino, he gave Rumore's parents credit for raising him right.

   But Paladino insists something went wrong later in Rumore's life. He faults the union chief for short-changing students and "sucking the taxpayers dry."

   Rumore dismisses the claims, insisting he has only tried to get the school district to live up to its obligation to negotiate a shift to a single-carrier health insurer with the union.

   We've posted the letters written by Paladino and Rumore. Read the letters and the accompanying article, and tell us what you think.

   -- Brian Meyer

Tough times ahead for school finances

   With cuts in state aid affecting public school districts throughout the region, school officials are warning taxpayers that they'll be enlisting their help -- raising their taxes -- to try and make up the difference.

   Many school officials say that even extreme budget frugality and the delay of new academic programs won't make up for a loss in aid that makes up a huge chunk of their operating budgets.

   While small tax increases tend to pass during school budget votes, the question remains as to whether taxpayers will be willing to step up to the plate when it comes to swallowing a bigger bill.


More loss for Canisius High School

Canisius High School has suffered some serious personal losses in the past year or so, of alumni, of leadership, of supporters.

The private Jesuit high school is an educational and cultural landmark in Buffalo and Western New York, and its graduates are known to carry the strength of the area with them in whatever they do.

The death this week of its former president, the Rev. James P. Higgins, at only 54, is another blow to an extended school community that is still recovering from the loss in 2008 of ardent Canisius supporters Tim Russert and Paul J. Koessler, and  John M. Granville, a 1993 graduate who was killed leading peace and development projects in Sudan.

On Jan. 4, Canisius also lost another former president, the Rev. Robert G. Cregan, who headed the school from 1974 to 1981, and alumnus and benefactor Bernard Kennedy, who donated hundreds of thousands to the school through his Kennedy Family Foundation died in 2007. 

We know Canisius will get through this rough patch. It has years of history, faith and tradition to guide it.

And as one of its alumni said, the high school will survive especially because of the contributions of these people and others like them.

Neighborhood schools -- an educational resource

   Finally we have an issue that the Buffalo Board of Education and Superintendent James A. Williams seem to agree on — neighborhood schools.

   Williams wants to spend some time early next year reviewing enrollment and busing data,  with an eye toward making some changes next fall. Most of the board thinks this is a good idea.

   Neighborhood schools have a lot to recommend  — financially and in terms of community involvement.

   City schools, faced with a $60 million deficit, could stand to save some money on shuttling kids all over town on buses and Metro Rail. It cost the district $37.5 million last year.

   Parents and students, meanwhile, are likely to feel far more connections and loyalty to a familiar school that's down the street than one that's strange and remote.

   The bonus for the kids? No more long bus rides. Did you know that the average Buffalo school student spends 48 minutes a day commuting?

   So why did we abandon the neighborhood school concept in the first place?

   The foremost problem when full-scale busing began 30 years ago was segregation. Now city schools are 75 percent minority. The minority has become the majority.

   Then there is the question of educational choice. Not all schools are equal. Parents go to great lengths to enroll their youngsters in magnet schools and charter schools to provide them with instruction, discipline and special programs that their regular schools don't offer.

   There are ways to tackle these problems. The school district has come up with several, including offering neighborhood schools only for elementary pupils, dividing the city into zones and giving preference to kids who want to attend schools closest to home.

   How do you think Buffalo should deal with the neighborhood school question?

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