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Board of Ed asks state for a different kind of audit

By now, everybody's pretty much used to the idea of the state doing a financial audit of school districts -- and the comptroller's staff shows up on their own schedule, whether local school officials want them there or not.

But the Buffalo Board of Education is asking Albany for a different kind of audit.

Board President Lou Petrucci met recently with State Education Commissioner John King and some of King's staff.

"They said they could come in and do an educational audit, see how our programs match up with the state standards," Petrucci said.

The board unanimously agreed to ask State Ed for just such an audit. 

Presumably, since King already discussed it with Petrucci, the state will say yes, although it's not yet clear how soon the audit will begin, or how long it will take.

It's interesting to note both the willingness of State Ed to conduct this sort of audit -- especially seeing as State Ed isn't exactly awash in extra staffers sitting around looking for things to do -- and the willingness of the Buffalo Board of Ed to invite Albany in to check things out.

We'll keep you posted as details on the educational audit unfold.

- Mary Pasciak

Live chat with parent leader Sam Radford at 2 p.m.

Please join us at 2 p.m. for a live chat with Buffalo parent leader Sam Radford, when he fields reader comments and questions.

- Mary Pasciak

Parent leader Sam Radford to be live chat guest at 2 p.m. Tuesday

Last week, Board of Ed President Lou Petrucci kicked off our summer live chat series at the School Zone blog. You can review the whole thing here.

Radford This week, our series continues, when Sam Radford joins us at 2 p.m. Tuesday for a live chat. He will be fielding reader questions and comments about parent concerns regarding the Buffalo Public Schools.

You will be able to find the chat on our main webpage at In case you're not able to join us for the live chat, you can e-mail me your questions ahead of time. You'll be able to review the chat later at

We're looking forward to another great live chat that gives you the chance to talk directly to newsmakers in education. Please join us!

- Mary Pasciak

Arne Duncan to visit one of Buffalo's low-performing schools

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will visit Bennett High School in early September.

"I had a conversation with the secretary of education's office on Thursday," Superintendent James Williams said at Wednesday's board meeting. "They are having a bus tour to kick off the school year. They are coming here on Sept. 3. We are going to visit Bennett High School. They were chosen because they are part of the Promise Neighborhood."

Arne Duncan I'm awaiting confirmation on the exact date, seeing as Sept. 3 is a Saturday.

Nevertheless, the point is that the top guy in education will be paying a visit to Bennett, which is included in Buffalo's Promise Neighborhood grant application and is also one of the city's persistently lowest-achieving schools.

"We're going to put on a very beautiful education presentation for them," Williams said of Duncan and his staff.

Bennett was one of four PLA schools that Buffalo got federal funding in 2010-11 to turn around.

When the state monitoring team visited there in March, they found a mix of positive and negative -- just as at the other three PLA schools: MLK, South Park High School and International School 45.

You can download the full Bennett report here. (I'll post excerpts from the other schools in the coming days.)

Here's a sampling of what the state review team found at Bennett (the items here were taken verbatim from the state's report):

- School leaders reported the school has established three main goals for turnaround (improve attendance, improve civility, and improve achievement) and four focus areas (teaching and learning, data analysis, engaging students, and parent/community involvement). Each goal has identified strategies for implementation and measures for evidence of success. During their focus group session, teachers indicated they are aware of the goals and focus areas.

- During their focus group session, teachers stated they are aware of professional development monitoring and receive appropriate feedback.

- Teachers stated district-wide PD events on Superintendent Days are not well coordinated. They would prefer separate days and events for primary and secondary teachers.  Additionally, district observers have sometimes faulted teachers for using text book strategies, which are part of their PD training.

- The principal maintains a comprehensive “data wall” which uses graphs to track student test performance, attendance, and discipline referrals. All categories were disaggregated and represented in a color coded format.

- During their focus groups session, students indicated that they feel as though some of their teachers are not prepared to teach.  Students reported teachers don’t have high expectations for them, and some classrooms are not organized and therefore not conducive to learning.

- The SED site-visit team observed some classrooms in which students were not academically challenged or engaged. In one class, students were given ditto sheets to complete without assistance or adequate direction (i.e., a student asked the teacher the definition of polynomials, and teacher response was, “I don’t know.  You look it up.”).

- During their focus groups session, teachers reported that the co-teaching model is less effective than desired. This is due to “special education teachers being pulled in too many directions.”  It was also reported special education teachers do not have a common planning time and therefore do not provide transitional planning for special education students.

- Morning announcements encourage students to look ahead towards higher education.  Scholarship awards are announced, and a $1.5 million scholarship goal was established by the school to promote efforts in this regard.

- A member of the SED site-visit team observed a teacher using twenty minutes of classroom instruction time to have a student removed for wearing her jacket in class.

- A full-time college/career readiness counselor was hired in January. Although the senior class students have been the immediate concern, school leaders indicated efforts will need to expand to accommodate the needs of all students, grades nine through twelve.

- During their focus group session, teachers indicated school leaders are highly visible throughout the building. They stated the leadership team has created a school culture that is collaborative, respectful and highly-conducive to school improvement efforts.

- During their focus group session, the leadership team shared a clear and concise schedule/plan for walk-throughs and observations. Two formal observations are conducted for non-tenured teachers and one formal observation is conducted for tenured teachers. Walk-throughs are unlimited, and feedback is provided in written form.

- During their focus groups session, students suggested school attendance is adversely affected as a result of the punitive nature of the school environment.  It was stated, “Why come to school if you’re only going to be suspended?”

- Bennett has an operational parent-teacher organization (PTO) comprised of various community members. The PTO works closely with school administration and counselors to meet the needs of parents and families. The parent facilitator reported she has met with over 200 families of Bennett High School.

- Academic Talent Search sponsored by Canisius College is housed in the school to provide tutoring in any content subject. However, the Canisius representative stated student attendance is low.

- Parents report the absence of print communication in Spanish and a translator for Bennett High School to Hispanic families. The PTO president reports she has met district and school leaders regarding this issue.

- Parents report the absence of print communication in Spanish and a translator for Bennett High School to Hispanic families. The PTO president reports she has met district and school leaders regarding this issue.

- During their focus group session, teachers indicated representatives from the district office are on-site on a regular basis to conduct walk-throughs and provide support to teachers, coaches and school leaders.

- During their focus group session, school leaders indicated their desire to have greater flexibility in selecting and scheduling staff in order to better meet the needs of students who are experiencing academic difficulty.

- Mary Pasciak

Live blog of Board of Ed meeting

Join us at 5:30 p.m. today as we live blog the Buffalo Board of Education meeting.


- Mary Pasciak

How is last year's round of low-performing schools doing?

The state has less than two weeks left before it must decide whether to issue school improvement grants to nine low-performing schools in Buffalo.

The district has not submitted applications for four of the schools, but the other five each are eligible for up to $2 million a year for three years.

Three of those five schools -- Lafayette, Burgard and Riverside -- were identified a year and a half ago as low-performing, but did not submit successful grant applications last year. A state monitoring team visited those schools at the end of March this spring to check their progress.

Here's what the state team had to say about each of them (taken verbatim and unedited from the State Education Department's letter to Buffalo):

Lafayette High School:

- During their focus group session, teachers indicated that there was not a clear and well-delineated plan in place for the school to prepare itself for the implementation of one of the four school improvement models.

- Teachers, leaders and students indicated their concern and frustration regarding plans for the international students currently enrolled in the high school who are not due to graduate at the end of this school year.

- The staff indicated and school leaders confirmed, there is a ‘grass roots’ movement throughout the school to engage students and promote a sense of community. Examples include: increased use of interactive whiteboards; opening the library one hour prior to the beginning of the school day; voluntary staffing of the library two hours after the end of the school day; and after school tutoring.

- Teachers and school leaders indicated that the staff has created a collaborative environment that has led to effective common planning, student-based lesson planning, and formative data analysis.

- During focus group sessions, teachers and school leaders indicated the need for training and support to better meet the needs of ESL/ELL/SIFE students.  The need for greater flexibility of scheduling was also expressed.   

- Teachers and leaders stated that a school improvement team was created by the staff to address the needs of the school.  The team initiated attendance rewards, created a school-wide hallway pass system, and has promoted the use of formative data throughout the school.

- Staff indicated that they have received professional development throughout the school year that has led to improvements in the use of technology.  Training included the use of interactive whiteboards, interactive student response devices, and laptop computer carts.

- According to teachers and leaders, staff development has not been linked to long-range school improvement plans.

- Teachers and leaders indicated that attendance is a major issue. The NYSED site visit team confirmed this through document review and classroom observations.

Riverside High School:

- During their focus group sessions, teachers and leaders described common themes (i.e., improving attendance, attention to hallway behavior, collaborative planning, increasing the use of technology, and raising academic expectations) throughout the building to promote the school’s efforts to implement one of the four school improvement models.

- The leadership team has the support and respect of the teaching staff. Equally, the leadership team has promoted a collaborative atmosphere throughout the school that is based on transparency and respect.

- School leaders indicated that district representatives have been accessible and supportive. District walk-throughs have been conducted a number of times during the year, and subject area representatives have attended common planning sessions.

- School leaders, teachers, students and parents indicated that attendance is a major concern, dramatically affecting student achievement. Challenges in this regard are numerous, and include:

   - Numerous steps have been taken to address the attendance issue, including: 
   - Niagara Falls Transit Authority (NFTA) buses failing to stop for high school students, and limited bus pass hours;
    - Real-time student attendance data;
    - A part-time (0.5 FTE) attendance teacher; and
    - A school attendance team

- Teachers stated that professional development opportunities are abundant, convenient and appropriate. Training sessions are seen as aligned to school improvement efforts.

- Students, teachers and school leaders indicated that the Safe and Civil Schools program has been universally adopted by the school and has led to improved hallway behavior and classroom attendance.

- During their focus group sessions, teachers and leaders indicated that common planning time has led to teacher-created common assessments, improved instructional planning, and increased collaboration across grade levels and subject areas.

- Counseling staff indicated that they are working with EdTrust to conduct a student survey to acquire information regarding their needs.

- Parents indicated that the parent teacher organization is active, but they would like to increase membership. They also indicated the need for more clubs and after school opportunities for students.  

Burgard High School:

- During their focus group sessions, teachers and school leaders indicated their concern and frustration regarding the high percentage of students with disabilities (SWD) currently enrolled at the school (over 30%, as compared to the district average of 18%).

- Teachers indicated that the new leadership team is seen as positive, respectful, accessible and highly visible throughout the school. They have helped to foster an atmosphere of collaboration throughout the building.

- Teachers and school leaders indicated that common planning time has ‘restarted,’ with expectations outlined by weekly agendas and minutes. Teachers stated that common planning time is used for professional development opportunities, student data analysis and improved instructional planning.

- Teachers, school leaders, students and parents stated that safety remains an issue, both within the building and in neighboring areas adjacent to school grounds. Police have an established presence, but this influence needs to be consistently maintained. Students stated that they are impressed with the ability of the school staff to address on-campus altercations quickly and effectively.

- Teachers, leaders and parents indicated that attendance is a major concern. Teachers and school leaders stated that a full-time attendance teacher is needed to address the needs of the school community. The attendance teacher is currently part time (0.5 FTE) at the high school.

- The attendance teacher indicated that the school is currently using student data to address chronic absenteeism and to proactively deal with potential issues. Teachers stated the need for additional elective courses, enrichment activities and extra curricular opportunities to engage students.

- During their focus group session, parents indicated that a parent facilitator has been hired and that the PTO is active. Additionally, parents stated that the issue of violence needs to be addressed, and community based partnerships must be developed to provide mentoring opportunities and after school activities.

- Teachers, school leaders, students and parents indicated that the extended school day currently in effect is adversely affecting student achievement, attendance and school-wide behavior. It was stated that students lose their mental focus, act out negatively, and/or skip classes. 

- Teachers and leaders indicated that staff cohesiveness is negatively impacted as a result of the extended day due to early and late shifts, and duplicative staff meetings.

- During their focus group session, students indicated the need for more enrichment opportunities. They stated the need for advanced placement and college level courses, as well as electives.

- Mary Pasciak

Review live chat with Board of Ed President Lou Petrucci

Board President Lou Petrucci joined us for a live chat, when he took reader questions and comments about the Buffalo Public Schools.

- Mary Pasciak

Why the plan for one Buffalo high school matters so much

When then-Education Commissioner David Steiner came to Buffalo last September, his visit to Lafayette High School made quite an impression on him:

Steiner said he was troubled by what he saw at Lafayette. "We have to say very frankly that our concerns remain, because it wasn't clear that everyone was on the same page" regarding exactly how that school would be changed to better serve students, he said.

I've never heard much in the way of details about that visit, other than that "there wasn't much learning going on" there that day. Whatever transpired seemed to get the state's top ed officials personally interested in Buffalo schools.

Soon after that visit, the state rejected Buffalo's school improvement grant application for Lafayette and six other schools.

Eventually, the district won approval for four of those schools. But Lafayette was not one of them.

Instead, Lafayette won a $300,000 planning grant. (So did Riverside and Burgard.) District officials had most of 2010-11 to put together solid turnaround plans for those schools.

(The district opted for what's known as a transformation model at Burgard and Riverside, keeping in place the staff and leadership at each of those buildings but introducing changes in the approach and program. While it remains to be seen whether the state will approve the plans for those schools, there have been no major concerns or objections raised locally.)

Back in March, when a state review team visited Lafayette, one of the things it noted was that:

During their focus group session, teachers indicated that there was not a clear and well-delineated plan in place for the school to prepare itself for the implementation of one of the four school improvement models.

That was literally within days of when district officials announced that they planned to implement a model at Lafayette that involved replacing the principal and half the staff.

But because teachers union President Phil Rumore vowed not to sign off on that plan, the Board of Education convinced the superintendent to shift gears and instead implement a plan there and at other schools that instead involves hiring an outside group to run the school.

The board has since opted to hire Buffalo State College to run Lafayette.

This whole concept of having an outside group come in and run a district school is pretty much brand new -- so it's anyone's guess at this point whether any plans that involve outside groups will be approved, whether in Buffalo or elsewhere in the state.

But a couple of things set the Lafayette application apart, even from other plans that involve outside groups.

The college predicated its proposal on having 10 key conditions met. (It was the only outside group to submit a proposal to Buffalo with any conditions, much less so many. Read the full proposal here.) It's not yet clear whether the state will find those conditions acceptable.

And Superintendent James Williams -- before the board approved Buff State's proposal -- said he did not think the college's proposal would fly, seeing as it built in an 8 percent grant administration fee right off the top. (This is standard practice for SUNY schools; the SUNY Research Foundation automatically builds in that percentage for grant management.)

Sometime before Aug. 1, the State Education Department needs to decide whether it's going to approve school improvement grant applications for five Buffalo schools. The federal government has given Albany until July 31 to decide whether to award $2 million a year, for three years, to each of the persistently lowest-achieving schools in the state.

Certainly, the fate of all five of Buffalo's applications is important. (The city has nine PLA schools currently eligible for funding, but officials opted not to submit applications for four or them.)

But the fate of Lafayette's application seems likely to be the most telling.

It seems one of two things will happen at Lafayette:

- The district's plan for the school will be approved, which will indicate that the state is confident in the decision to bring in an outside group to run Lafayette -- and is confident in Buffalo State's ability to tackle the challenge.

That could pave the way for more colleges and universities to get involved with turning around local schools.


- The state will not approve the plan, suggesting that even with an extra year, the district is unable to put together an acceptable plan.

If that happens, it will force Albany's hand. For months, state officials have threatened that if each PLA school does not have solid plans in place for September, Albany would revoke the registration of those schools.

While the other schools might be able to negotiate a planning year if their plans are denied, that seems all but impossible for Lafayette, which already got a year -- and $300,000 -- to plan.

So, if Albany denies the plan for Lafayette, will state officials actually follow through and revoke its registration? Or were they just lobbing idle threats?

- Mary Pasciak

Mark your calendar: School chat series begins

Now that things are slowing down -- somewhat -- for the summer, I'm finally able to tackle something that I had wanted to do months ago: Set up weekly live chats at the School Zone blog.

Our first chat will be at 2 p.m. Tuesday, July 19, with Lou Petrucci, the new Board of Education president.

When he was elected president on July 1, he vowed to open up lines of communication and gather more community input. He actually approached me to ask if we could have a live chat so that he could hear from all of you about what you would like the district to look like, and how it might get there.

I'm looking forward to the chat with Petrucci being the first of many such opportunities for readers to interact directly with newsmakers. My goal is to host a live chat every week here at the School Zone with one or two key people each week.

Even if you can't log on during the live chat itself, you can always review the archive of the entire chat online.

We will try to squeeze in as many reader comments as we can during each chat. So start gathering your thoughts and questions for Petrucci.

And mark your calendar.

- Mary Pasciak

Will Buffalo schools lose out on millions?

Buffalo's parent group has put together a last-ditch strategy to try to convince the district to submit school improvement grant applications for four of its failing schools.

When an advisory group determined that none of the proposals from outside groups were good enough for those schools, the Board of Ed on July 1 opted not to submit grant applications for those buildings: East High School, Waterfront Elementary, Buffalo Elementary School for Technology, and Futures Academy.

The District Parent Coordinating Council fears that means Buffalo will lose out on a total of $24 million over three years for those schools.

Will that happen?

District officials have said they are not taking a pass on that money -- they are just delaying things. They plan to ask for a planning year in 2011-12 for those schools, then apply next year for the full federal turnaround funding, which is up to $2 million a year for three years for each school.

That is essentially what ended up happening in 2010-11 for three schools.

Remember when the superintendent refused to move the principals at three schools? That heavily influenced the state's decision to deny Buffalo's school improvement grant applications last September. The district eventually got funding for four schools, but Riverside, Burgard and Lafayette high schools never got the full funding for last school year. Instead, each school got $300,000 in planning funds.

District officials are hoping the same thing will happen this time around for the four schools that Buffalo has opted to not submit applications for.

It's not clear whether that will work.

In the past, state officials have told me consistently that the district must have turnaround plans in place by September, whether Buffalo receives federal grant funds or not. And they have emphasized that if does not happen, the state could revoke the registrations of those schools.

Regent Bob Bennett, remember, warned last week that the district is jeopardizing the federal funds by not submitting school improvement grant applications.

"The unanswered question," he said last week, "is will that money be available a year from now?"

State Education Department spokesman Tom Dunn has not responded since being asked on Monday whether Buffalo would lose the federal funds entirely for those schools, or whether the district would be able to delay the process by a year.

Parents in Buffalo say they realize it may be a long shot to convince district officials to submit turnaround plans with very little time left. But they say the district has already done most of the work that would be required to put the grant applications together, seeing as the original plans -- those that involved moving prinicipals and half the teachers at each school -- were written up and presented to the board by early May.

"They could still do what they were looking at doing for a year," said Kim Walek, secretary of the parent group. "The parent contention is that we were going to move forward with a plan to bring money in and bring change to the schools. It doesn't make sense to us as parents why we would completely lose that opportunity."

Teachers union President Phil Rumore says it would make no sense to move teachers. He also says the district is delaying the federal grant application, not foregoing it entirely.

"It's not like they're leaving the money on the table," he said. "But better to leave it on the table than spend it on something that's destructive. I wish people would, rather than focus on just let's grab the money, do someting that makes sense educationally."

The parent group plans to bring in a rep from the U.S. Education Department on Wednesday to explain the research that supports moving staff as an effective school turnaround, Radford said.

- 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 | [email protected]

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 | [email protected]

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 | [email protected]

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 | [email protected]