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No more waiting: 'Superman' headed to Buffalo

"Waiting for Superman," Davis Guggenheim's controversial film looking at the challenges facing public education in this country, will premiere in Buffalo at 7 p.m. Friday at the Amherst Dipson Theatre.

Waiting_For_SupermanTickets are available for $5 from the charter advocacy folks at Buffalo ReformED by calling 759-4698. Sorry, tickets for this showing are sold out. Check with the theater for other show times.

After the film, a panel discussion about school reform will feature Buffalo Superintendent James A. Williams; Buffalo Teachers Federation President Phil Rumore; Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, a champion of charters; Keith Frome, an administrator at King Center Charter School; and Joy McDuffie, who is active with dropout prevention efforts in Buffalo.

Yours truly has been asked to moderate the panel discussion. The film is widely considered to be heavily biased in favor of charter schools -- but the goal of the panel discussion is to give each of the panelists an equal chance to share their thoughts. This seems like a valuable opportunity to have a substantive dialogue about local issues in school reform, with some of the key players.

Following the lead of my colleague, Bob McCarthy, I'm asking my readers for input. Do you have a question you'd like to hear the answers to? (Could be a question for all five panelists, or a question tailored specifically for one of them.)

Any and all suggestions will be appreciated and considered. Share your question in a comment below, or e-mail me privately at

- Mary Pasciak

Tracing the trouble with New York's standardized tests

The New York Times reports that problems with the state's standardized tests were years in the making.

The State Education Department this summer raised the bar retroactively on English and math tests given to elementary and middle school students. Commissioner David M. Steiner said the change was necessary to bring the test results back into the realm of reality, because for too long, students' scores had been, in his words, "inflated."

Commissioner David Steiner Because of this change in Albany, students across the state whose results had, for years, indicated they were doing well suddenly were cast as falling below standards. And schools that had dramatically improved their scores over the past few years suddenly appeared to be falling short of the mark.

But, according to the Times, there was really nothing sudden about this, other than the fact that new leadership in the State Education Department decided to stop ignoring warning signs:

"The fast rise and even faster fall of New York’s passing rates resulted from the effect of policies, decisions and missed red flags that stretched back more than 10 years and were laid out in correspondence and in interviews with city and state education officials, administrators and testing experts.

"The process involved direct warnings from experts that went unheeded by the state, and a city administration that trumpeted gains in student performance despite its own reservations about how reliably the test gauged future student success.

"It involved the state’s decision to create short, predictable exams and to release them publicly soon after they were given, making coaching easy and depriving test creators of a key tool: the ability to insert in each test questions for future exams. Next year, for the first time, the tests will not be released publicly."

- Mary Pasciak

Parents mobilizing to help their kids

In the past few years, the parent group in the Buffalo Public Schools have come a long way in establishing their credibility and making sure they have a seat at the table.

RadfordOne tangible sign of that is the fact that at each school, a parent coordinator gets a modest stipend from the district to put in regular hours at the school to try to maximize parent involvement.

Still, there's no question the District Parent Coordinating Council has a long way to go in getting parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and other adults who care for kids to become actively involved. At a recent parent information session at Bennett High School, the turnout was dismal. There are more than 34,000 kids in the district. Only about 40 parents showed up to the meeting.

Samuel Radford III, vice president and designated spokesman for the DPCC, said the group is working toward 100 percent parent involvement in the district in the next few years.

"If we all come together as a community, we can ensure the academic success of every child," he said.

There are encouraging signs. One of them: Two hundred people showed up for the last DPCC meeting, by Radford's estimate.

The group meets at 6 p.m. on the first Tuesday of the month (one exception: the November meeting will be on the second Tuesday, Nov. 9) at the Makowski Early Childhood Center, 1095 Jefferson Ave.

- Mary Pasciak

Figuring out why kids don't come to school

Poor student attendance is one of the biggest problems facing Buffalo, as well as most other urban districts. It's pretty simple: If students are not in school, they can't learn -- no matter how beloved the teacher is, how engaging the lesson is, or how interactive the classroom technology is.

Buffalo officials are taking steps to help them understand why students don't come to school. They've asked Hedy Chang, a California-based national researcher who specializes in student attendance issues, to analyze student attendance in the Queen City.

Getting off the school bus The district has already provided her with several years of student attendance data from Buffalo. Next, she'll come up with specific questions to ask focus groups in Buffalo over the next several weeks. While focus groups are not known for yielding the strongest scientific data, local officials say they believe it's the research method most likely to help them reach an understanding of why kids don't show up to school.

The current issue of Education Week takes a look at attendance issues on the national level. The story, which cites Chang as an expert in the field, notes that Baltimore seems to be making the best progress in battling student absenteeism.

Reporter Sarah D. Sparks writes: "The district has moved to require an attendance monitor in every school, as well as districtwide incentives for students to come to school more often and education for parents and teachers on the importance of attendance."

Sparks goes on to tell about Deidre Reeder, an attendance monitor at an elementary school. She "makes her first of three rounds at 8 a.m., ducking into classrooms to check attendance. For the students who aren't there, she gets on the phone to parents, grandparents, whoever is available...

"'If some children have missed a day or two, then I go out and get in my truck, because I know I'm going to be makign a stop,' Ms. Reeder said. 'People will hear me knocking on the door, and the kids just start getting dressed.'"

- Mary Pasciak

Dingboom and World @ Riverside

When major renovations were nearly completed for the football stadium at the Riverside Institute of Technology, the Buffalo Board of Education asked the public for suggestions on whose name to put on the stadium.

Charles Dingboom They got two candidates: Charles Dingboom and Frank J.A. World.

Dingboom was the longtime football coach at Riverside, known as a strict disciplinarian and beloved by countless students and athletes there. Even students who did not play football for him offered strong testimonies.

One of them wrote in an e-mail supporting naming the field after him: "Although I did not play football for Coach Dingboom, I did, however, take his physical education class and knew him occasionally through my four years at Riverside. Anyone who knew him or participated in sports with him were all better for it. He gave us all an example of character, integrity and honesty. Charles Dingboom is an historical icon for Riverside High School."

Now in his eighties, Dingboom is fighting Alzheimer's disease.

Frank World The other candidate put forward to have the stadium named after him was Sgt. Frank J.A. World, a Riverside grad who was killed in Afghanistan this spring, leaving behind a wife, young son and baby girl. He was 25 years old.

After graduating from high school, World joined the Marines in 2003. He was deployed to Iraq for a few years, until 2008. This spring, he was sent to Afghanistan.

Two months later, he was killed when his light armored vehicle was hit with an explosive.

His brother, Larry, told a reporter: "My brother was solid in his faith and firm in his beliefs, so there is no doubt that he is our angel up above watching down on us."

Board members recently were saved from having to choose between two worthy nominees for the naming of the field at Riverside. The World family graciously suggested that the board name the Riverside stadium after Dingboom, and the pavilion after World.

At 6 p.m. Friday, both the stadium and the pavilion will be dedicated.

- Mary Pasciak

Who needs FedEx, anyway?

After the Buffalo Public Schools lost out on $42 million in school turnaround grant funds in September, the State Education Department granted the district a do-over. Deadline: Oct. 4 -- which is today.

Two weeks ago, Buffalo Superintendent James A. Williams told me it would be no problem to make the revisions the state required. In fact, he said the district would have its revised application completed by Sept. 30. That was last Thursday.

It didn't happen.

Those familiar with the inner workings of City Hall say this is typical of the district in recent years: Williams comes out with grand promises, then leaves it to those below him to scramble to try to make it happen.

While City Hall administrators including Amber Dixon, Debra Sykes and Debra Buckley were putting in marathon hours the past few days to complete the application, Williams was a few hundred miles away, attending a conference in Baltimore.

As I write this, Williams is back in town. And his grant application team, apparently, is still putting the finishing touches on the application.

FedEx Williams himself had not even seen the final document, as of shortly before noon.

At this point, one thing is clear: Even FedEx wouldn't be able to get the application delivered to State Ed by the time it's signed and sealed.  Instead, someone will have to drive the application today from Buffalo to Albany.

Let's hope they don't get stuck in traffic.

In the meantime, we'll be doing our homework back here in Buffalo to find out exactly what the final grant application contains. Earlier drafts suggest the district seems to have revised the application to meet the requirements that State Education Commissioner David M. Steiner and Senior Deputy Commissioner John B. King Jr. laid out for the Buffalo Public Schools.

Stay tuned for more details.


The application has reportedly made its way to Albany, as of 4 p.m. today -- via e-mail, of all things. How very 2010.

Meanwhile, district officials have said they will not comment on the application until the state reviews it. Apparently, their secrecy extends even to the people who hire and fire the superintendent. Board President Ralph Hernandez says Williams still has not provided him with a copy of the application.

-- 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 |