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What do the Buffalo schools really need? Teachers call it like they see it

When the state rejected Buffalo's application for $42 million to help turn around its seven lowest-performing schools, one of the reasons officials cited was Phil Rumore's refusal to support the application. The teachers union president said the district failed to involve the union in developing the grant application in any meaningful way. Rumore2

So when Albany gave the district a chance to revise its application, Superintendent James A. Williams came looking for the support of the union. Rumore insisted that the district ask the teachers at those seven schools what they think their schools need. Williams said he would incorporate as many of the teachers' ideas as possible into the revised grant application.

So what do the teachers want?

A whole bunch of stuff for their students that has long been part of the suburban education landscape: enough textbooks so kids can take them home; electives that students actually find interesting; classroom equipment like microscopes, scales and graphing calculators; guest speakers; and field trips.

Oh, and Buffalo teachers say it would make sense to reinstate all those attendance teachers who were let go so early in Williams' tenure. Along with that, teachers say it would help to add guidance counselors, social workers and school psychologists to help students work through the plethora of problems that follow them to school.

Some of the other sensible ideas to help schools better serve a largely impoverished student body: keep the gym and pool open late, as a reward for kids who stay after school for academic help; let students' parents use the school library; and offer child care services at school for teen parents at risk of dropping out.

For those who want to see the unedited lists from the teachers at the seven schools, here they are.

Buffalo's revised $42 million school improvement grant application is due in Albany on Monday. Williams said last week he would have it finished by the end of September -- which means today. He said he would present the revised application to the Board of Education at a special meeting, possibly on Friday.

Ralph Hernandez But Board President Ralph R. Hernandez says that's not going to happen. A number of Buffalo board members already are on their way to Baltimore for the annual conference of the Council of Urban Boards of Education, and even more of them (along with Williams) will head there in the next couple of days -- meaning there likely would not be enough board members left in town to hold a meeting.

Hernandez says he's hopeful that, in the absence of a meeting, Williams will forward a copy of the revised application to each board member, and that it will be every bit as good as Buffalo's kids need it to be.

-- Mary Pasciak

Waiting for Superman

Davis Guggenheim, the man who won an Oscar three years ago for "An Inconvenient Truth," has turned his attention to the state of public education in this country. His latest film, "Waiting for Superman," follows five children -- Bianca, Francisco, Anthony, Daisy and Emily -- to document their families' quests for the best education for their kids.

The film paints a stark picture of the problems afflicting public schools. In addition to the vignettes of the five children, viewers are introduced to individuals at the forefront of school reform, chief among them Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children's Zone; Bill Gates, the billionaire who has poured vast resources into efforts to turn schools around; and Michelle Rhee, chancellor of Washington, D.C., schools, who made headlines this summer for firing low-performing teachers.

"You wake up every morning and you know that kids are getting a really crappy education right now," Rhee says in the movie.

"Waiting for Superman" opened in major cities this weekend. Those of us in Buffalo will probably have to wait a few weeks to see it for ourselves. For now, then, we can only look to what others are saying about the film.

By many accounts, the documentary demonizes teachers unions and casts charter schools as a key to salvation. Some critics say the film oversimplifies the path to fixing education. Reactions have been rather predictable. Teachers unions are up in arms over the film, for instance, while Oprah says it's a wake-up call for America to fix its education system.

What seems noteworthy, though, is some of the more nuanced discussion that the film has generated.

For instance, during a "Waiting for Superman" panel discussion in Washington, D.C., Guggenheim said that only about one in five charter schools is outperforming traditional public schools. Likewise, Canada noted that there are some lousy charter schools out there, as well as some outstanding ones.

And American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten -- despite her objections to the film -- offered some thanks to Guggenheim.

"The movie actually is creating far more dialogue about these issues than I can remember. So Davis, thank you for that," she told him.

-- Mary Pasciak

Alleviating some of the test fatigue

Although we're only a few weeks into the school year, the first state standardized tests were scheduled to begin in six weeks, when fifth-graders would sit down to show how much they know about social studies.

That won't be happening this year.

The Board of Regents decided this summer to eliminate the fifth-grade social studies test in November, along with the eighth-grade social studies test in June.

Test After adding more and more tests over the years, this seems to be the first time in recent memory that the state has decided to eliminate any tests. The motivating factor? Money. The State Education Department estimates it will save about $800,000 by not offering the tests, which are among the few not required by the federal government under No Child Left Behind.

Depending on where you sit, the decision to axe the social studies tests could be good or bad.

Those in favor of the move say that the financial savings are just part of the good news. With two fewer tests to worry about, students and teachers will have that much less stress this year, some say. And teachers won't have to use those days to administer and score the test, meaning students might actually gain some instructional time because of the decision.

On the other hand, some say that which does not get tested ends up getting devalued. English and math, over the years, have become the primary focus of all the state testing, so schools have predictably placed much of their emphasis on those areas. Things like art and music are not the focus of any tests, so in some places, students are spending less time painting and singing, so that they have more time to bone up on their grammar and geometry.

Will the state's decision to drop the social studies tests result in any shifts in how instructional time is allocated this year? That remains to be seen.

-- Mary Pasciak

Merger talks and merit pay

Four months ago, it seemed as though Kevin Gaughan was at the helm of an unstoppable movement to trim local governments. Voters in West Seneca and Evans cut their town boards by two members each.

Kevin Gaughan But lately, it seems that voters have grown tired of Gaughan and his crusade.

A month ago, voters came out in droves to defeat efforts to dissolve the villages of Sloan and Williamsville. And yesterday, Grand Island residents said no to trimming the Town Board by two members.

Ironically, just as some of the final ballots were cast in Grand Island last night, up in Orleans County, residents gathered to hear more about a proposal to merge the Barker and Lyndonville school districts. The two school boards in January got a state grant to study the possibility of merging the two districts, each of which has fewer than 1,000 students. Dire economics is the primary motivation for considering such a move. Although a combined district would straddle two counties, with Barker in Niagara and Lyndonville in Orleans, the longest bus ride would be about an hour -- which sounds pretty long, but is only a few minutes longer than the longest bus ride now in that neck of the woods.

A study last year by UB's Regional Institute concluded -- contrary to popular thought -- that merging districts is not necessarily the most effective way to save money. But, as state Education Department officials have said for years, the UB study suggested that districts with fewer than 1,000 students should carefully consider merging. Among the likely suspects named in the study: Barker and Lyndonville, along with North Collins and Eden in Erie County.

This effort is far more low-key than anything Gaughan has championed. Residents and school officials have been meeting over the past few months, looking at every angle of a possible merger. Ultimately, it will be up to voters in both districts to make the decision. Will it fly? We'll have to wait and see.

In the meantime, on the national education scene this week, the first-ever scientific study of the effects of merit pay for teachers is causing quite a stir.

Researchers at Vanderbilt University found that annual bonuses of up to $15,000 had no significant effect on student performance. The study involved 300 middle school math teachers in Nashville who volunteered for the study. Half were put in a control group, and the other half were put in a group that made them eligible for annual bonuses of $5,000, $10,000 or $15,000.

"If teachers know they will be rewarded for an increase in their students' test scores, will test scores go up? We found that the answer to that question is no," Matthew Spring, executive director of the National Center on Performance Initiatives, said in a Vanderbilt news release. "That by no means implies that some other incentive plan would not be successful."

-- Mary Pasciak

Where in the world is Vivian Evans?

Ever since Vivian O. Evans made public the fact that she'd taken a job in Maryland -- but intended to keep her seat as the East District representative on the Buffalo Board of Education -- her whereabouts every two weeks for board meetings, and for committee meetings on opposite weeks, has become the subject of much speculation.

Vivian Evans As Wednesday evening each week draws near, the musings begin: Will she show up? Won't she show up?

Immediately after it became known that Evans was working in Maryland, she missed a number of board and committee meetings.

Then, two weeks ago, she surprised some people when she turned up at the board meeting -- 30 minutes late -- moments after the board had gone into executive session to decide whether to declare her seat vacant. (After a heated executive session, Board President Ralph R. Hernandez said the board decided to let the matter drop.)

The following week, Evans did not show up for the committee meeting that Wednesday.

This weekend, she did attend the board's retreat on Friday evening and Saturday morning.

On Monday, State Education Commissioner David M. Steiner and two of his top people flew in from Albany to meet with the board. Evans was not there.

Two days later, at Wednesday's regular Board of Ed meeting, Evans did show up -- 45 minutes late.

Bottom line: Evans' attendance in the past two weeks: present and punctual, 1; present but late, 2; absent, 2.

-- Mary Pasciak

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

A matter of principal(s)

For more than two months, Buffalo Superintendent James A. Williams has thumbed his nose at federal grant guidelines that require districts to remove any principal who has been at a "persistently lowest-achieving" school for more than two years. All along, though, he knew he was gambling with as much as $42 million in school improvement grant funds.

"We probably won't even get funding . . . because I'm not following their script," he said in July, referring to the state Education Department and the federal government.

Well, it turned out he was right. The state denied Buffalo's application last week. Even at that point, though, when pressed on the point, Williams refused to say he would have to move the principals at Burgard, Riverside and International School 45.

King, steiner and schwartzThat changed today, when State Education Commissioner David M. Steiner (center) came to town and told the superintendent there were no two ways about it. During private sessions this morning involving Steiner, senior deputy commissioner John B. King Jr. (left), assistant commissioner Ira Schwartz (right), and some of Buffalo's senior administrators, state officials said -- again -- that there was nothing to negotiate.

Williams finally cried uncle, saying that talks are under way between the district and the principals union to "come up with structure to remove the principals from the building, and outline how that's going to be done and what's going to happen to the people we remove."

For those who are interested in hearing the nitt-gritty for themselves, here's a recording of the full 90-minute Board of Education meeting with Steiner:

Ed commissioner

So it seems the district is back on track to getting as much as $42 million to help turn those schools around -- great news to Buffalo Board of Education members, as well as taxpayers who couldn't understand how the struggling district could afford to walk away from such a mountain of money.

But there remains one nagging question through this whole thing: Why was Williams so fiercely opposed to moving Florence Krieter (Burgard), Colleen Carota (International School 45) and Michael Mogavero (Riverside)? 

Morrell

The whole time the superintendent insisted on keeping the three of them in place, he made no bones about his plans to yank Fatima Morrell, who had been principal at Lafayette less than two years when it landed on the state's list of failing schools. What makes the whole thing curious: Federal guidelines required him to remove Carota, Krieter and Mogavero -- but not Morrell. 

Morrell will finish out the 2010-11 school year at Lafayette. During summer 2011, the school will be closed and reconfigured, and Morrell will apparently be reassigned -- although it's not clear whether she will end up at another school or in an administrative position in City Hall.

As for the other three, they were supposed to have been taken out of their respective schools before the 2010-11 year began this month. But that didn't happen. Now that Williams has agreed to remove them, it's unclear how quickly that will take place. And, as with Morrell, it's unclear where they will end up.

-- Mary Pasciak

Drill, baby, drill

As today's story on teacher and administrator attendance notes, the Buffalo Public Schools recently released a report whose bottom line, City Hall administrators say, is this: teachers and principals need to be in school more.

On the average, more than 10 percent of district employees are absent on a given day, the study found. The major focus was on teachers. When a teacher misses more days in the classroom, so does his or her students, the study found. And the more days of school a teacher misses, the worse that teacher's students are likely to do in math and English.

Mark W. Frazier, a top administrator and one of the study's authors, said the district for the first time was able to use data to "move past hunches," and drill down from the district level to the school level to see how many days employees were taking off, and for what reasons: sick time, personal days, staff development, student suspension hearings, etc.

In the voluminous additional data the district provided to The Buffalo News, attendance is broken down at the building level; it's clear that some schools appear to have a much bigger attendance problem than others. It would seem that if the district wants to ferret out employee abuse of time off, administrators need to focus on sick time, which is the type of benefit time most difficult for the district to police. City Hall has the right to deny employee requests for personal days and vacation days (which are only given to administrators, who work year-round).

At any workplace -- especially one as big as the Buffalo Public Schools, which employs nearly 4,000 teachers -- it's likely you'll find some people abusing their sick time. Even Crystal Barton, president of the administrators union and longtime principal of McKinley High School, said: "Do I have somebody who's absent every Monday or every Friday? Then that may be a pattern, and we should look at that. Show me the one who has a problem -- someone is actually taking advantage of a situation."

The trouble is, the district hasn't drilled down its data enough to paint a good picture of how many bad apples are floating in the barrel.

It's just not as simple as running the total number of sick days used in each school. Frazier said the district is not out to punish people with genuine medical problems. As he pointed out, "Each building has its own story. There might be four people out on maternity leave in one school." Finding instances of abuse would require the district to drill down the data further, to filter out people who are out for documented long-term medical situations. Including them in the data pool only makes it murkier.

Beyond that, Superintendent James A. Williams has said that the district has found patterns of increased absenteeism on days before and after holidays, as well as on Mondays and Fridays. 

City Hall does have district-wide data on absences before and after holidays -- but just total absences, as opposed to a further breakdown that would determine how many of those absences are sick days, as opposed to personal days, which the district has the authority to deny, or any other reason. And the district apparently has not done any actual data analysis yet to look for patterns among days of the week -- administrators said so when The News requested it -- so at this point, we don't know how good Williams' hunch is.

Seems like maybe the district ought to keep drilling.

-- 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 | djgee@buffnews.com


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 | tlankes@buffnews.com


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 | stan@buffnews.com


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 | dswilliams@buffnews.com

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