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Requiring online courses for high school students

Online courses are nothing new in the Buffalo area.

A number of local colleges offer online courses, and a growing number of degrees are available entirely online. To name a few: the University at Buffalo offers master's degrees in rehabilitation counseling, science and the public, and library and information science; Buffalo State College offers a master's in adult education; and Canisius College offers a master's in physical education.

But online courses for high school students? That's still a relatively new frontier locally, as well as nationally.

Computer class Memphis is one of the school districts that's leading the way in online learning for high school students. There, students are going to be required to take at least one online course to graduate from high school, the Commercial Appeal reports.

"We're using online sources to get children oriented to college and work force life, where a whole bunch of training and learning is happening online," Deputy Superintendent Irving Hamer told the Memphis paper.

This year, 2,736 Memphis students in grades eight through 12 are enrolled in online courses. The district offers 28 courses online, according to Betty R. Brown in Memphis' office of instructional technology.

Students can choose from a number of required courses, including English, algebra, geometry, chemistry, physics, economics, world history and Spanish. Electives include web page design, computer technology and keyboarding. Memphis even offers three advanced placement courses online: art history, computer science and microeconomics.

"Students may take courses from home, school, or anywhere they have a computer and high speed Internet," Brown wrote in response to questions from The Buffalo News. "[Memphis City Schools] also provides after-school computer labs for students, which are staffed with a site manager and in some cases, subject area tutors.

"Students are given access to all course materials with the exception of semester and final exams, which remain locked until all course requirements are met. When the requirements are fulfilled, students sign in at their home school on a designated date and take their semester exam.

"Each course includes mandatory oral components which are scheduled and completed by the online teacher.  This provides added accountability throughout the course by ensuring that the student is completing their own assignments."

Memphis students can also take "blended learning" classes -- also known as hybrid classes -- that combine traditional, face-to-face teaching with online teaching. Another 1,437 students are taking classes of this nature.

"In most cases, online courses are less expensive to implement and execute than traditional courses," Brown wrote. "The cost of implementing online courses decreases with each student enrolled, and enrollment is increasing each year."

 - Mary Pasciak

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Top pay in schools here and across NYS

Over the weekend, we reported that in Erie and Niagara counties, 35 public school employees were each paid more than $150,000 last year. Here's the complete list.

Administrators in the Williamsville School District are the best-paid in the region. Superintendent Howard S. Smith's earnings ($227,850) for the first time surpassed those of Buffalo Superintendent James A. Williams' ($223,372), whose district is about three times bigger, based on student enrollment. And three assistant superintendents in Williamsville each earned $151,620. Howard Smith

Our story was based on data released last week by the Empire Center for New York State Policy, a project of the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. The Center collects and posts public payrolls from school districts and local governments across the state at Last week, they posted 2009-10 payrolls from schools across New York.

Smith (pictured at right) told me, "I have made it my practice not to talk about my own salary with the media." He did, however, note: "There are a number of superintendents in Monroe County paid more than me."

That's true, more or less -- to be exact, two superintendents in Monroe County made more than Smith last year.

Rochester Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard, whose district is about the same size as Buffalo, made $248,520, and the superintendent in Pittsford, a Rochester suburb, made $246,242.

But Smith raises a good point. Whenever statewide data is released, each media outlet focuses on the chunk of the data that pertains to its readers (or viewers or listeners). It's interesting, though, to take a look at what's going on elsewhere in the state.

Rochester's WXXI reported that more than 300 employees in the Rochester School District made more than $100,000 -- compared to 67 in Buffalo.

The highest salaries, though, were clearly on Long Island.

Former Commack Superintendent James Feltman made more than anyone else in the state, raking in $657,970, reports the Commack Patch. That included unused sick time and vacation days he had accrued over 24 years in the district.

His district defends his compensation, saying he's well-respected statewide and that strategies he employed over the years saved the district hundreds of thousands of dollars, reports

 - Mary Pasciak

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A school transformation you can see and feel

Publicolor, a nonprofit group, is changing schools in New York City one brushstroke at a time.

Publicolor2 The group goes into each school with a mission: Transform the walls with bold colors, engaging students in the decision-making as well as the work -- and in the process, change lives.

The endeavor seems best understood in the words of those who are directly involved.

"We go into marginalized and underserved communities here in the New York City area and we transform public spaces through energetic colors," says Verushka Gray, a site leader for Publicolor.

"And hopefully we also transform the culture in that process. You go from a dark, dreary hallway as opposed to a hallway that's now, say, citrus blast. It's a totally different experience."

Students are not bystanders in the process. They come on Saturdays to help paint, side by side with older teens and corporate volunteers. And from the beginning, students help pick out the paint colors for their school. Publicolor3

"It makes them feel as though what they say matters," says Verone Kennedy, principal of a school that Publicolor transformed. "You can see it on their faces. They wear the confidence.... it's much more than just putting paint on a wall. It's changing lives. It's changing students."

"We're not only transforming places -- we're transforming people, as well," says Ruth Lande Shuman, founder and president of Publicolor.

It starts with paint and proceeds with person-to-person relationships, which are what make this more than just a large-scale renovation project.

Check it out for yourself:

 - Mary Pasciak

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Where in the World Is Vivian Evans? Part IV

Where was Vivian O. Evans on Wednesday night?

Sitting in her seat at the table in Room 801 of City Hall, attending this week's Board of Education meeting -- for the first time in seven weeks.

Vivian EvansSince August, Evans has been working in Maryland and commuting back to attend some board meetings.

Evans said after the meeting Wednesday that her constituents in the East District can always reach her by phone. Residents of the East District do not have a problem with her living outside her district, Evans said.

It's people who live outside her district who object to her not living in Buffalo full time, she said.

(Worth noting, perhaps: Evans was not there at a recent board meeting when East District residents complained about the fact that she's representing them from a few hundred miles away. She eventually showed up that evening, but well after public comments had ended.) 

Her attendance at this week's board meeting seems to stave off any immediate threat to her seat on the board.

If a board member misses three consecutive board meetings without the rest of the board officially excusing them, their seat can be declared vacant for lack of interest. Evans missed the last two meetings, meaning that if she had missed Wednesday's session, her seat could have been declared vacant.

- Mary Pasciak

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Where in the World Is Vivian Evans? Part III: Down to the Wire

It's been seven -- count 'em, seven -- weeks since Vivian O. Evans showed up to a Buffalo Board of Education meeting to represent her constituents in the East District.

Will she show up to tonight's meeting? Well, only Evans and her travel agent know for sure at this point.

If she misses the meeting, it seems likely that her inter-state saga could soon be drawing to a close.

Vivian Evans Since Evans announced in August that she'd taken a job in Maryland but planned to retain her seat on the Buffalo Board of Ed, her attendance at board meetings and other district functions has been spotty, at best. While it seems that Evans is not inclined to resign her position, it's possible that the decision over her seat could be taken out of her hands.

If any board member misses three consecutive meetings -- without being officially "excused" by fellow board members -- then the board declares that seat vacant, according to board policy.

When Evans missed the board meeting on Oct. 13, Mary Ruth Kapsiak and Florence Johnson were the only people on the nine-member board who voted to officially excuse her absence. Strike One.

When Evans missed the next board meeting on Oct. 27, Johnson, Christopher Jacobs and Jason McCarthy voted to excuse her absence -- again, lacking a majority. Strike Two.

One more strike and ... well, you know the rest.

Of course, if Evans shows up tonight, the attendance clock is reset for her. Theoretically, she could show up to every third board meeting -- every six to eight weeks or so -- and retain her seat indefinitely.

There doesn't seem to be any deadline in the board's bylaws as to how long that could drag on.

And how long would her constituents tolerate it? That remains to be seen.

- Mary Pasciak

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'National catastrophe' in education for African American males

The Council of Great City Schools today released a stark report detailing the status of young black males in the United States.

"The nation's young black males are in a state of crisis," the authors write. "This report is likely to make people angry, and it should. We hope that this is a louder and more jolting wake-up call to the nation than this country is used to hearing."

Boy with backpack Some of the key facts they cite:

- Black males are twice as likely to drop out of high school as white males.

- Ten percent of black males have a bachelor's degree, compared to 18 percent of white males.

- White males who did not graduate from high school earn $5,000 a year more than black males who dropped out. White males with a master's degree earned $20,000 more than black men with a master's degree.

"A Call for Change: The Social and Educational Factors Contributing to the Outcomes of Black Males in Urban Schools" does more than detail the evidence of this "national catastrophe" -- the authors of the study also lay out recommendations. Number One on their list: convene a White House conference on the status of black males, and develop a sweeping call to action.

Other recommendations include building a support network to mentor black males; increasing the number of black male counselors in schools across the country; and encouraging school districts to better target their programs and interventions for the needs of black males.

- Mary Pasciak

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What makes the difference between graduating and dropping out

Why do some kids graduate from high school, while others drop out?

A recent study of high school students in Rochester -- a district almost identical to Buffalo in size and many other factors -- tried to tackle that question. The results of the University of Pennsylvania study, "Educational Success in the Face of Adversity as Measured by High School Graduation," are reported in Education Week.

Generally, the kids who went on to graduate tended to have something that the dropouts often lacked: relationships with adults who cared about them, expected them to succeed, and were willing to help them along the way.

High school graduation Jean-Claude Brizard, the Rochester superintendent, and Bolgen Vargas, a former Board of Education president there, write in Education Week:

"A majority of the students who graduated in the Rochester City School District's class of 2009 faced challenges similar to those that confronted the students who failed to graduate. For example, approximately 20 percent of the graduates were not living with either parent, but were instead in foster care, living with grandparents, or being cared for by siblings or friends. More than 92 percent identified themselves as members of a minority group, primarily African-American, Hispanic, or biracial. And 70 percent were receiving free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of their economic status.

"The Rochester study focused on what helped students in such high-risk situations beat the odds and graduate. It found that successful students were able to take advantage of multiple protective factors, such as caring relationships with an adult, in many places -- at school, in the neighborhood, at home, within social-service organizations, and others...

"The graduates in Rochester's class of 2009 appeared to have benefited from [protective factors] in a way dropouts had not. They had at least one adult who (1) believed in and held high expectations for them, (2) modeled successful behaviors, and (3) was consistently present in their lives. The graduates' stories often included references to strong, robust relationships in multiple areas of their lives -- at home, at school, among their peers, and within their communities. Often, one relationship had led the student to another, and when loss was experienced, the others provided a safety net."

- Mary Pasciak

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GW athlete first openly transgendered athlete to play NCAA Division I basketball

Kye Allums will become the first openly transgendered athlete to play NCAA Division I basketball when George Washington University takes on the University of Green Bay-Wisconsin in a game Nov. 13, according to a story reported first this week by

Allums, who was born female, identifies as male. reports: "It was during his sophomore year that Allums told some teammates he was a man inside a woman’s body. At first, they didn’t believe him. They joked with him about it. But Allums was serious, and when he is on a mission everyone takes notice.

“'We were all just talking, a bunch of teammates, and he said that he’s a guy,' said teammate Brooke Wilson, one of Allums’ closest friends on the team. 'At first I didn’t understand, and then he explained that sex is how you’re born and gender is how you identify yourself. Then I started to understand.'"

Now a junior, Allums decided to go public with his situation. Why? "I wanted to set an example for other people who are afraid to be themselves," he told an Associated Press reporter.

In this video, courtesy of USA Today, Allums talks about being transgendered and his decision to go public about his situation:

Allums plans to have sex-reassignment surgery next summer, but cannot begin hormone treatments until after his college basketball career is over, according to NCAA rules.

In the meantime, he knows he will encounter some people who will give him a hard time.

"People come up with all kinds of crazy stuff, but the only thing you can do is just be clear with what is actually happening, and that's what I'm trying to do," Allums told the Associated Press. Don't "fear what you don't understand and actually look at things to understand it. Yes, transgender, there's so many different things people think it is, but actually look it up."

- Mary Pasciak

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Alfred U. tops list for economic diversity among northern universities

Alfred University tops one of the regional lists released today by U.S. News & World Report, winning the distinction of the regional university in the North with the greatest economic diversity among its students.  Alfred University

The rankings in this category are determined by looking at the percentage of undergraduate students getting Pell grants, which are generally given to students whose family income is less than $20,000. At Alfred, 30 percent of students get Pell grants, according to U.S. News & World Report.

Other local schools landing near the top of that list:

- Nazareth College in Rochester, where 28 percent of students get Pell grants

- Canisius College, 25 percent

- Rochester Institute of Technology, 23 percent

- SUNY Geneseo, 18 percent.

U.S. News & World Report today also released lists ranking colleges and universities by their racial diversity. Among regional universities in the North, St. Peter's College in Jersey City, N.J., landed at the top of the list, with a diversity index of .72, based on its population of non-whites. You have to look quite a way down that list to find any local schools:

- D'Youville College and Buffalo State College rate highest among the locals, each with a diversity index of .34

- SUNY Geneseo, .24

- Medaille College, .23

- SUNY Oswego, .22

- Canisius, .20

- Niagara University, .17

- SUNY Fredonia, .15.

- Mary Pasciak

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Rhee and Fenty on what worked in D.C. schools

In her final days as schools chancellor in Washington, D.C., Michelle Rhee and outgoing D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty shared their reflections on three years of trying to reform some of the worst schools in the country.

From their piece in the Wall Street Journal, some of the most substantive points:

Michelle Rhee "We bargained with the teachers' union for 2½ years and won significant concessions. How did we do it? By striking the sort of grand bargain that could serve as a model for other troubled school districts. The formula is really quite simple: more money and resources, in exchange for more accountability from teachers.

"The union took some time to accept this trade-off. In 2008, we put a proposal on the table that we considered rather bold. In exchange for giving up tenure and linking pay to performance, teachers would be able to earn up to $130,000 a year. At first, union leadership was dead-set against it and simply refused to allow their members to vote.

"We did not give up that easily. D.C. went for more than two years without a new teachers' contract, but we kept at it. Since the city did not have the money for a significant raise, we implored several foundations to consider providing the resources to enact a groundbreaking contract. The funders, including the Broad Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation, were clear that they would put up the money, but not if they were only backing a marginal improvement. The contract had to set a new precedent.

"That D.C.'s teachers finally endorsed this revolutionary new contract shows that they, too, are ready for change. When we were negotiating with the union, we heard one thing over and over again from the leadership: "Our members are never going to accept this." In truth, when the union finally allowed them to vote, the teachers passed it overwhelmingly, by 80% to 20%. Given the chance to be treated as professionals and to be rewarded for their achievements, they grabbed it.

"Our contract with the teachers achieved a number of breakthroughs:

• It rewards great teachers who accept a higher level of accountability with some of the highest teacher pay in the nation—up to twice as much as they were previously making.

• No longer do educators have a job guarantee for life. Ineffective teachers are immediately dismissed from the system. Minimally effective teachers do not receive a pay step increase and have one year to improve their performance. If that doesn't happen, they are subject to termination.

• If layoffs are necessary, the decisions about whom to dismiss are based on quality and performance instead of seniority.

• We also instituted a comprehensive system for evaluating teachers, including growth in student achievement as measured by standardized tests (so that teachers who take on the toughest students aren't unfairly penalized), observation of their classroom practices and assessment of their contributions to the school community."

Meanwhile, back in Buffalo, it's been 11 years since the last teachers contract was successfully negotiated, and six years since it expired. Phil Rumore, president of the teachers union, says he expects negotiations to begin in earnest by the end of 2010.

Stay tuned.

- Mary Pasciak

E-mail me at or follow me on Follow  SchoolZoneBlog on Twitter Twitter.

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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 |