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Mum's the word

The federal government gave State Ed until July 31 -- which presumably translated into Aug. 1, seeing as July 31 fell on a Sunday -- to decide which persistently lowest-achieving schools would be awarded school improvement grants.

That deadline came and went, and nobody seems to be in much of a hurry to let the public know what's going on.

When I asked State Ed spokesman Jonathan Burman whether Buffalo's PLA schools had been awarded the up to $2 million a year in grant funds, he told me: "We expect to make an announcement about SIG grants later this week."

Why not make that information public now? After all, these schools have just over a month before students start showing up for classes in September. At this point, every day counts.

But State Ed is not alone in its less than burning desire to unveil public information to the public.

When Buffalo Board of Ed President Lou Petrucci joined me last week for a live chat, a reader asked how Lafayette High School had spent the $300,000 it got in planning funds to turn the school around.

Petrucci didn't know the answer, but promised to get one and let me know, so that I could pass it along to all of you. He followed through.

Here's the full response he got via e-mail from Associate Superintendent Debra Sykes:

The ERN planning funds ended June 30. The initial plan for Lafayette, based on the JIT report, was to close the school therefore all of their planning funds were not expended. A new Literacy plan and after school ELA program were created using ARRA funds instead of the ERN planning funds.  

The other two schools, Burgard and Riverside utilized their funds to begin the transformation process.

So it seems what we can take away from that is that the district spent something less than the $300,000 it got for Lafayette. But we still have no idea how much it spent, or on what.

Coincidentally, about two weeks ago, I submitted a Freedom of Information Law request to the district, seeking a detailed accounting of exactly what it spent the planning grant money on at Lafayette, Burgard and Riverside.

I got the boilerplate response back from the district, saying they are "researching your request and will be in contact with you, on or before twenty business days from the date of this letter, to discuss any schedule concerns or clarification that might be required, or to provide the records you have requested."

Clearly, the Buffalo Public Schools will have to tell me how that money was spent.

But apparently they, like State Ed, are not in much of a hurry for the public to have quick access to public information.

Kind of makes you wonder why.

- Mary Pasciak

Live chat with Phil Rumore at 2 p.m. Tuesday

Join us at 2 p.m. Tuesday, when Buffalo Teachers Federation President Phil Rumore joins us for a live chat at www.buffalonews.com.

 

- Mary Pasciak

How has your school done on state tests for the past decade?

Over the past several months, as I've been writing about the persistently lowest-achieving schools in Buffalo, I've gotten plenty of inquiries from readers wanting to know how long it's been since one school or another has been doing poorly.

Well, over the weekend, I stumbled onto a little gold mine of information. And it's not just for low-performing schools, and it's not just for Buffalo schools.

The New York Times has an excellent site at http://projects.nytimes.com/new-york-schools-test-scores where you can get historical test score information about any school in the state. Included in the mix are charter schools as well as traditional public schools.

Once you select your school, the site generates line graphs that compare your school's performance on standardized tests, dating back about a decade, to the state median.

At the elementary/middle school level, you get tests broken down by grade level. For high schools, you get the data broken down by subject area.

For instance, here's a screen grab of Bennett High School's performance on the English Regents exam. The blue line is Bennett's performance; the grey line is the state median.

(Quick explanation: The first graph reflects the performance index, which is a number the state puts together; second from left is percent of students scoring 65 percent or higher; third from left is percent of students scoring 85 or higher; and finally, on the right, is the percent of students who scored 55 or higher.)

Bennett hs screen grab
 
The data has been posted on the State Ed website for years -- but in individual PDFs for each year, for each school -- or in separate databases for each year -- making it pretty much impossible to do any kind of comparison or analysis, unless you have plenty of time to spend.

Lucky for us, the NY Times crew had that kind of time to invest. They make it possible to get a flavor of what's gone on in a school over the recent past, and how that compares to what's gone on statewide.

Like any such interface, this one has its limitations. For instance, at the elementary level, you can't break apart the ELA scores from the math scores. (Update: A reader more astute than I am wrote in to point out that you can, in fact, hone in on specific subjects. There are tabs toward the top of the screen, under the school's name, that enable you to select either "all subjects" or a specific subject.)

And I don't think there's a way to directly compare two or more schools to one another.

But this is still, without a doubt, one of the most user-friendly data analysis gizmos I've found online for New York school data.

I spent quite a bit of time fiddling with this. One of the things that most interested me was looking at how steady or jagged a school's performance was, compared to the state. Many schools fairly closely mirrored the general trend line of the state, while others were all over the map, year to year.

There's way too much data here for me to absorb all by myself. So, as always, let me know ([email protected]) what you stumble across that's particularly interesting.

- 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]

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