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Building on success

Two decades ago, Westminster Community School was one of the worst public schools in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Buffalo.

Today, the school still serves one of the city's poorest neighborhoods. Yet Westminster regularly outperforms the district as a whole -- and even does better at times than Olmsted School 64, home to the city's magnet program for gifted students.

What accounts for such a remarkable turnaround?

Yvonne Minor-Ragan About 17 years ago, M&T Bank adopted the school, providing money and other resources to help turn it around. One of the bank's first moves was to recruit a highly effective principal with a proven track record, Yvonne Minor-Ragan, who came to Buffalo from Chicago.

Once she was in place at Westminster, she started to do things differently. Westminster was one of the first local schools to adopt uniforms, and later, to institute separate classes for boys and girls in the middle school years. Saturday classes helped boost student performance. One of the latest innovations: The school dumped its standard-issue cafeteria fare, and brought on an executive chef -- a woman who used to be Ralph Lauren's personal chef, in fact -- to prepare fresh food for the kids.

Now, the folks who transformed Westminster are looking to expand that success throughout much of the 14215 ZIP code. M&T Bank, Minor-Ragan and the Oishei Foundation are steering an effort to create a "Buffalo Promise Neighborhood," which would provide families with support and services from birth through college or career, in the vein of Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced yesterday that the Buffalo collaborative was one of 21 nationwide to receive a $500,000 planning grant, which could lead to as much as $20 million in federal dollars to implement an aggressive plan in the Bailey-Kensington area. Plans call for helping the Buffalo Public Schools turn around Highgate Heights Elementary and Bennett High School, although M&T officials are quick to point out that they do not intend to convert those two into charter schools, as they did with Westminster.

The collaborative, known as the Westminster Foundation, says it intends to implement a plan for that neighborhood even if it does not end up getting any federal money beyond its planning funds. 

Will it work -- with or without millions of federal money?

That, of course, remains to be seen.

But if any plan is likely to work, it seems to be this one. The list of heavy hitters that organizers have brought to the table is impressive: M&T Bank, the John R. Oishei Foundation, Read to Succeed Buffalo, the City of Buffalo, Buffalo Public Schools, United Way of Buffalo & Erie County, Catholic Charities, Westminster Community Charter School, Buffalo Urban League and the University at Buffalo.

The resources and the will to succeed are certainly there. Let's see what happens.

-- Mary Pasciak

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About School Zone

Denise Jewell Gee

Denise Jewell Gee

Denise Jewell Gee joined The Buffalo News in 2007 and currently covers education and suburban schools. She also writes a column for the City & Region section and previously covered government in Erie County and Niagara Falls. Gee graduated from Boston University with degrees in journalism and political science.

@denisejewellgee |

Tiffany Lankes

Tiffany Lankes

Tiffany Lankes joined The Buffalo News in 2013 and primarily covers the Buffalo Public Schools. She has written about education since 2003 at newspapers in Florida and New York. In 2008, she was a nominated finalist for The Pulitzer Prize. Lankes is an Amherst native and graduate of Sacred Heart Academy and Syracuse University. She started her journalism career writing for the News’ NeXt section.

@TiffanyLankes |

Sandra Tan

Sandra Tan

Sandra Tan has been a cityside reporter for The Buffalo News since 2000 and currently covers the Buffalo Public Schools beat. She previously covered the Williamsville school district and was a full-time education reporter for five years prior to joining The News. She graduated from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

@BNschoolzone |

Deidre Williams

Deidre Williams

Deidre Williams began working for The Buffalo News in 1999 and currently covers Buffalo Public Schools. She formerly was a suburban reporter on the Northtowns beat and has been a cityside reporter covering communities since 2004. Williams has a mass communications degree from Towson University.

@DeidreWilliamsB |