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Time for repairs, after $1.4 billion in school reconstruction

Burgard constructionIf there's one thing officials in the Buffalo Public Schools have been consistently proud of over the past several years, it's the reconstruction of nearly every school in the district.

Former Superintendent James Williams often said that other cities looked to Buffalo to find out how to pull off similar projects. When he retired in September, in fact, he joked that he "might go into construction" -- to teach other districts how to renovate their buildings like Buffalo did.

Well, apparently the $1.4 billion that taxpayers spent to update the city's schools only takes us so far. The district hasn't even completed construction on all the schools, and already district officials estimate the cost of repairs and maintenance at $200 million.

A report released by the Council of the Great City Schools says that Buffalo schools are in need of $150 million in "renovation, repair and modernization" -- plus another $50 million in deferred maintenance.

(The report surveyed 50 major school systems in the country, giving each one the opportunity to self-report its needs.) 

- Mary Pasciak

It gets better: 'What are we going to do right now?'

A few months before Jamey Rodemeyer killed himself, he posted a video on YouTube -- a message of hope for gay and lesbian kids, talking about how it gets better. Here it is, in case you haven't already seen it -- and even if you have (it's worth watching again):

We know now that, despite Jamey's assertion at that time, somehow, it didn't get better for him. It got far worse.

The question now is how to make sure it does get better for countless other kids.

In today's story, we hear from gay and lesbian teachers about what the school climate is like for them.

Some of them are out at school, with no problem. Others would never dream of living that way. One teacher told me that from the day he was hired in his district (more than a decade ago), he has lived in daily fear that a student or parent would find out he's gay.

This is hardly a new issue.

Many teachers and administrators have told me that they think coming out at school would likely be a career-killer. One lesbian principal, now retired, told me she would bring a male "date" with her to every school and district function -- and leave her longtime female partner at home.

In another district, a gay administrator -- who is out to some people in school circles -- at one point put his name in the ring for a superintendency, but did not get the job. The buzz in the boardroom was that no district would hire a gay superintendent.

The climate, of course, is more welcoming for gay and lesbian teachers and administrators in some schools than in others.

But in the aftermath of Jamey Rodemeyer's suicide, with all the attention being paid to student bullying, it's hard not to wonder how schools could be safe places for gay students if gay teachers are not comfortable there.

The school climate is shared by everyone in it: adults as well as kids.

In the past few weeks, there's been plenty of attention focused on how to combat bullying in the schools. For example, Williamsville Superintendent Scott Martzloff met with 150 parents and others in the community a couple weeks ago to tackle that issue:

Martzloff spoke passionately about the district's desire to figure out what happened and take steps "so that it never happens to another child ever again."

Much to his credit, he opened a dialogue with the community. Somehow, though, during this meeting sparked by the suicide of a teen who was bullied for his sexual orientation, there seemed to be hardly a mention of the specific core problem Jamey dealt with: hostility over his sexual orientation.

It's great that schools -- in Williamsville and elsewhere -- are talking about ways to stop bullying. But that seems a little like giving cough syrup to a chronic smoker with emphysema. Unless the underlying issue is addressed, the symptoms will never stop appearing.

Philip A. Jarosz, a math teacher at Kenmore West, sang to me the praises of his school's atmosphere for all people, including those who are gay or lesbian. He talked about the importance of building a culture that respects all kinds of people.

"I think there's a certain bravery to it, a bravery that says we are going to stand up for this and we are going to stand up against whatever intolerance there is -- end of story, whatever that may be: religion, race, sexual identity, gender," he said.

Like Jarosz, Amber Buday, a GED teacher in Buffalo, is out at school.

Some gay and lesbian students specifically ask to be in her class because they know they will find safety there. That is one small piece of a landscape that must be much larger, she says.

"Here's the thing: It does get better. But someone needs to make it better for you right now," she said. "It gets better the minute you come talk to me -- because I'm not 14, and I'm not going to let it slide. We can't ask these kids to just hold out for five years. So what are we going to do right now?"

It's not a rhetorical question.

- Mary Pasciak

One out of three Buffalo eighth-graders fails - until they attend summer school

Good news about Buffalo's summer school program: 94 percent of eighth-graders did well enough in it this year to get promoted to ninth grade.

The results were good, but not quite as good, among the seventh-graders who attended the Extended Learning Opportunity Program: 80 percent were promoted to eighth grade.

ELOPAssociate Superintendent Will Keresztes was pleased to present the results to the School Board at a recent committee meeting. Good news, board members agreed.

Here's what nobody really talked about much, though: The reason hundreds of kids found themselves in summer school is because they did not do well enough during the year to get promoted to the next grade.

And certainly, nobody talked about exactly how big this problem is.

How many kids are we talking about?

Quite a lot.

Nearly one out of three students -- 31.5 percent, to be exact -- failed eighth grade last year. That's 764 students.

And nearly one out of four students -- 23.5 percent, or a total of 576 students -- failed seventh grade.

To pass either of those grades, students need a final class average of at least 65 percent in three of four core subjects, including math and English. So any student failing two or more classes would be held back, unless they attended summer school.

Now, while state assessments are not counted as part of a student's grade, they are a reasonably objective outside measure of how well students are performing.

In May 2011, here's how well Buffalo's seventh- and eighth-graders performed on those tests. Those at or above proficiency (in other words, scoring a 3 or 4):

- 23.8 percent of seventh-graders on English

- 34.1 percent of seventh-graders on math

- 23 percent of eighth-graders on English

- 27.7 percent of eighth-graders on math

Let's take a minute to revisit the stats on students who did not advance to the next grade. At the end of the school year, one out of four seventh-graders and one out of three eighth-graders were to be held back.

But such a huge percentage of them attended one month of summer school and showed up enough that they were promoted to the next grade. Once summer school was over, the district had dramatically pared its numbers: 5 percent of eighth-graders and 7 percent of seventh-graders ended up getting held back this year.

What does that mean?

Well, administrators and board members seemed to see that as a success.

"The results are mixed, but there's a lot to be encouraged about," Keresztes told the board.

He noted that the summer school students were the first to receive automated wake-up calls from the district -- something he thinks improved attendance, and therefore, enabled students to complete summer school and advance to the next grade.

"I think we have some evidence that if you show up, you have a pretty good shot," he said.

But not everyone holds the same glowing view of Buffalo's summer school results.

Some say it doesn't seem too likely that students are going to learn in four weeks the material they failed to master all year long.

"Really, you get rewarded for attendance in summer school," parent leader Sam Radford said. "They can't read or write, but now they pass the grade."

- Mary Pasciak

Grading the School Board

Everybody seems to have an opinion about the School Board.

But how well are they actually doing?

Buffalo ReformED is trying to answer that question in something of a tangible way -- after every board meeting.

Report cardThe group has developed a report card that rates the board on a scale of 1 to 5, in each of six categories: attendance/preparation; meeting etiquette; staying on task/participation; parent/community engagement; committee reports; and superintendent accountability.

This week, the board earned 19 points out of a possible 30. The high points included the administration's immediate follow-up with a parent who complained that her 4-year-old daughter had been an hour and a half late getting home on the bus one day. Also worthy of kudos: an update on the superintendent search.

Low points included the fact that Amber Dixon, John Licata and Lou Petrucci seemed to be the only people using microphones -- meaning the audience cannot hear most of what happens at the board table. The lack of updates from several board committees also didn't sit well -- along with the lack of updates on plans for the persistently lowest-achieving schools and other major issues.

In addition to providing ratings and comments on the six categories, the report card breaks out which board members were at a meeting, who showed up late, what major votes were taken (and how board members voted), how long the meeting lasted, and how much time was spent in executive session.

Buffalo ReformED's director, Hannya Boulos, says the group hopes the report cards will help increase accountability and transparency in the district.

Right now, the group's staff are the only people rating the board at each meeting. Eventually, Boulos hopes to hand out blank copies of the report card to everyone who shows up to board meetings, to give the public the chance to weigh in.

- Mary Pasciak

Groundhog Day at the School Board

A few people have asked me recently why on earth the same July School Board meeting is still playing on public access -- over and over and over and over.

And none of the videotaped meetings from August or September have seen the light of day.

School boardWell, here's the story.

Turns out the person who used to videotape the meetings retired this summer. And the person filling in did not know how to convert the videotapes to the format that's needed for TV.

So all those meetings for the past few months have been taped -- they just never got on TV.

The good news: the conversion problem appears to be solved. So this week's board meeting should actually get onto public access.

As for the meetings from August and September -- it sounds as though they'll never make it to the screen.

But at least that July meeting will finally disappear from your living room.

- Mary Pasciak

Live blog of School Board meeting at 5:30 p.m.

Please join us this evening for a live blog of the School Board meeting.

- Mary Pasciak

Who will be Dixon's No. 2?

City Hall is abuzz with talk focusing on who will fill the No. 2 spot in Amber Dixon's administration.

She advertised for a chief academic officer, with a deadline of Friday (Oct. 7). She says she's going to look through the stack of resumes before making a decision.

Fran Wilson The word in the elevator is that Dixon's planning to appoint Fran Wilson, one of the community superintendents. (Pictured here about 10 years ago, when she was principal of School 74.)

Some in the district have pointed out that Wilson has little experience as a teacher -- she worked for 10 years in the district as an elementary school counselor. The only teaching experience listed on her resume is as a summer school teacher at School 68.

She has served as assistant principal at Southside Elementary (including a few months in there as acting principal), principal at Hamlin Park School 74, and principal at Makowski.

You might note that nowhere in there is any experience at the secondary level -- a condition common to the people that former Superintendent James Williams appointed to exempt positions. Some have pointed out that Dixon also lacks experience at the high school level, leading to questions regarding how well qualified the top two administrators (if Wilson were appointed) would be to turn around a four-year graduation rate that hovers around 50 percent.

Dixon won't comment on the rumors regarding Wilson. She's only saying that she needs to look through the stack of resumes before making a decision.

She has another stack of resumes to look through, too. Williams advertised over the summer for an associate superintendent of human resources, a position he never ended up filling. Dixon reposted that in September as an executive director of human resources. Eileen Fleming has been been the acting executive director of human resources for the past few months.

Dixon says she hopes to make both exempt appointments as soon as possible.

- Mary Pasciak

The News' Andriatch discusses bullying on WBFO

News Suburban Editor Bruce Andriatch was a guest on WBFO-FM 88.7 and talked about efforts being made by parents and schools to curb bullying:

Download the audio and take it with you

Could some of City Honors' success be replicated?

Pretty much everyone agrees that one of the things that sets City Honors apart (in addition to the fact that all the students have to test in) is the fact that parents there are much more involved than the parents at most Buffalo schools.

Many people seem to figure that's the result of the socioeconomics of the kids at City Honors -- 26 percent of the students there qualify for free or reduced lunch, compared to 77 percent district-wide. (Now, exactly how that school came to have such a different socioeconomic profile is a story for another day.)

The thinking seems to be that better-educated parents, or parents who make more money, are more involved in their children's education. If you go with that line of thinking, then increasing parent involvement at most of the other schools seems like almost a lost cause -- or at best, a steep uphill battle.

And, given the fact that parent involvement is a key ingredient in a child's success in school, this is a pretty important issue to think about.

Radford press conf Well, one of Sam Radford's children was accepted to City Honors this year, and boy, what an eye-opener that has been for Buffalo's most outspoken parent leader.

What he sees at City Honors is a structure for parent involvement. Each classroom there has a parent volunteer who is responsible for communicating with the parents in their classroom.

Radford's thinking is that when you have a parent responsible for communicating with the parents of the 20 to 30 kids in that room, that communication is going to be effective. That puts the communication on a more individual level, for one thing, and for another, that parent intimately knows the challenges and needs of the kids in that classsroom, as well as the strengths and skills the parents might be able to offer.

(At this point, the district relies heavily on large-scale marketing efforts for communicating with parents, such as mass mailings, automated phone calls and letters sent home in backpacks. If you want to know how effective those are, ask a parent.)

Radford has been urging the School Board to replicate City Honors' parent structure at the nearly 60 other schools in Buffalo. 

"We have a working model at City Honors, you could say," he told the board.

He also wants a paid parent facilitator at every grade level, in every school. (Right now, the district is supposed to have one paid parent facilitator at every school. At the struggling schools, that's a full-time position. At the other schools, it's part time.)

The cost? He pegs it between $600,000 and $3.1 million, depending on how much the parent facilitators get compensated. That's out of a district budget of nearly $900 million. The district is required to spend 1 percent of its Title I budget (nearly $40 million) on parent involvement efforts.

I've heard him make that pitch to the School Board a few times already in the past several weeks. The board has not given him much feedback on it, at least not publicly. He keeps coming back and making the same pitch.

It was starting to seem like this would turn into a never-ending rerun: Radford makes the pitch. The board listens, maybe asks a couple questions, then moves onto other things, without having a full discussion about it.

And it looked like things were headed the same way at this week's committee meeting:

Mary Ruth Kapsiak: This is going to have to come back to the table.

Radford: I know what that means.

Jason McCarthy: It's only because we've run out of time.

Radford: We want to ask for procedures for implementation of board policy, which is the critical piece. What we want to know is can we set up a time (to talk about it).

At that point, Interim Superintendent Amber Dixon stepped in. She said what Radford is asking for is a procedure for parent involvement -- which is the realm of central office administrators, not the board (which is a policy-making body).

She agreed to have central office staff sit down with Radford and talk through his ideas, then come up with procedures and present them to the board. (To clarify: she did not agree to implement everything Radford's asking for, but did agree to talk about it.)

McCarthy, who chairs the educational support committee, agreed to have the board discuss it again in November. That was music to Radford's ears.

I don't know whether Radford's proposal is the right one. What I do know is that whatever the district is doing now to get parents involved sure isn't as successful as it could be.

If district officials decide Radford's proposal isn't the right one, let's hope they come up with an innovative solution they're ready to try -- soon.

Could it be that there is a way to replicate the parent involvement that City Honors enjoys?

Maybe we'll find out.

- Mary Pasciak

Suspensions up so far this year in Buffalo schools

The earliest snapshot of suspensions in the Buffalo Public Schools shows an increase over last year in both short-term and long-term suspensions in the district.

Through the end of September 2011, there had been 614 short-term (one- to five-day) suspensions, compared to 441 for that period last year. That's an increase of slightly more than one-third.

Burgard But you really need to look a little closer at the numbers. There were more schools that saw a decrease in suspensions than an increase -- but some of those with an increase saw a much bigger numeric increase, which affected the overall district stats.

The schools that saw the biggest percentage increase in short-term suspensions: Pantoja, Drew Science Magnet and Harriett Ross Tubman. Each of them saw at least a ten-fold increase. Among the high schools, Burgard's increase was greatest; suspensions there more than tripled.

Long-term suspensions increased far more, district-wide, than short-term suspensions. They nearly tripled, in fact.

There had been 196 long-term (more than five days) suspensions through the end of September 2011, compared to 66 during that period last year.

Most schools had just one or two long-term suspensions so far. Several had none.

Some exceptions: Bennett had 30 long-term suspensions in September 2011 (compared to seven last September); Burgard had 28 (compared to six last September); and McKinley had 17 (compared to one last September).

(Remember, short-term suspensions are at the discretion of building principals. Long-term suspensions are at the discretion of the superintendent or his/her designee.)

Here's a breakdown of the short-term suspensions, by building:

School number School Suspensions through 9/30/11 Suspensions through 9/30/10
3 D'Youville Porter 3
6 BEST 9 10
17 Early Childhd Ctr 17 4 3
18 Pantoja 14 1
19 Native Am Magnet 3 4
27 Hillery Park 7
30 Frank Sedita 29 13
31 Harriett Ross Tubman 44 4
32 Bennett Park 5 9
33 Bilingual Center 33

37 Futures Academy
39 MLK 6 4
43 Lovejoy Discovery
45 Intl School 45 2 13
53 Community Schl 53 12 24
54 Blackman 3 4
56 Olmsted 56 3
59 Drew Science Magnet 36 3
61 Early Childhd Ctr 61 2
64 Olmsted 64

65 Roosevelt

66 North Park Middle 19 19
67 Discovery
69 Houghton 1 5
72 Lorraine 
74 Hamlin Park 4
76 Badillo 9 9
79 Grabiarz 21 11
80 Highgate Heights 5 8
81 School 81
82 Early Childhd Ctr 82

84 Erie Co Health Ctr

89 Wright 1
90 Drew ECC 90 1
93 Southside 15 15
94 West Hertel 1 7
95 Waterfront 31 11
97 Austin 8
99 Makowski 2 1
187 Performing Arts 12 10
195 City Honors

197 MST Prep 31 11
198 International Prep

200 Bennett 92 39
204 Lafayette
205 Riverside 65 75
206 South Park 15 6
212 da Vinci

301 Burgard 41 13
302 Emerson
304 Hutch Tech
305 McKinley 11 18
307 East  47 27
402 OTC

415 Middle Early College

Total: 614 441


We'll provide updates on the suspension situation as the year progresses. Stay tuned.

- 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 |