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Highlights and live blog from School Board meeting: vote on turnaround plans

Review a live blog of one of the most important School Board meetings of the year, as the board voted on turnaround plans for seven low-performing schools.

School Board Member Ralph Hernandez and Interim Superintendent Amber Dixon discuss board votes and Lafayette High School:

More from Dixon:

Lafayette High School Principal Naomi Cerre talks about the voting process and turnaround plans during the meeting:


Here is the packet for tonight's meeting, including personnel changes, contracts and more.

- Mary Pasciak

Statewide database: How well did your private school do in math and English?

Take a look at the third- through eighth-grade 2011 ELA and math scores for all private and public schools in New York State.

As always, to make multiple selections, hold down the control key (PC) or the shift key (Mac). To do a new search, click here. You can sort by various columns by clicking on each column heading.

Online Database by Caspio
Click here to load this Caspio Online Database.

To get more information about each school -- such as the number of students who took the test and the average raw score -- click on the "Details" link next to that school's results. Non-public schools are listed by the public school district in which they are geographically located. Information contained here was provided by the New York State Education Department.

- Mary Pasciak

Transparency in the Buffalo schools: one step forward, one step back

There's no question that the Buffalo Public Schools have reversed course in some ways under Amber Dixon.

Last year, when Buffalo was developing improvement plans for its low-performing schools, then-Superintendent James Williams had his central office staff put together the plans. Principals and teachers were lucky if they knew what was in those plans -- forget actually having any input into them.

It was yet another example of what Board President Lou Petrucci calls the "Soviet-style," centralized system that had developed in the district over the years.

When Dixon took over, she vowed to put more power in the hands of the individual schools. That included the process of putting together the improvement plans.

Ask just about anybody who was involved, and they'll tell you that the past several weeks have seen a 180-degree reversal.

This time, each principal was asked to develop a plan for his or her school. Ideally, parents and teachers at each building were to provide input along the way.

That's not the only thing that changed this time around.

Dixon also vowed that the process would be more transparent.

On Friday, I tested that transparency.

Five of the low-performing schools were holding meetings of their site-based management teams. Each one was voting on whether to recommend hiring an outside group to run the school or replacing half the staff to turn the building around. The meetings, I had been told, were supposed to be open.

Lafayette High SchoolSo I showed up at Lafayette High School's meeting.

Had I done that a year ago, under the previous administration, I can pretty much guarantee that the minute I stepped into the building, a security guard would have been summoned immediately to usher me right out.

I wasn't sure what to expect, given the current leadership in City Hall.

I checked in at the front desk, signed in at the main office, and headed down to Room 11, where the school's team was going to be meeting. I got there a few minutes early, so I chatted with a local pastor who was there, said hello to a parent, a teacher, the principal, and others there I knew.

And then, as we were waiting for everyone to show up, community superintendent Cassandra Harrington asked to speak to me out in the hall.

This would be the moment of truth.

"I've been instructed to ask the people in the room whether they're comfortable having you there," she told me. "This will only take about 10 seconds."

She asked me to wait out in the hall with principal Naomi Cerre while she found out whether the school's team would let me stay. (My presence at Lafayette had triggered an immediate phone call to Dixon, who had decided to leave it up to the school's team whether I could sit in on the meeting.)

A few seconds later, Harrington opened the door and invited me back in. The tribe had spoken -- and they were comfortable letting me stay.

That bodes well for Buffalo.

The future of the city rests on the success of the entire district. That includes turning around Lafayette and every other low-performing school.

It is taxpayer money that is funding the district now, just as it is taxpayer money that will fund any additional turnaround efforts. The process of developing those plans should be transparent, as Dixon herself has said.

So it was encouraging to be able to sit through four hours of deliberations about the future of Lafayette. I listened to teachers, administrators, parents and community members make heartfelt arguments about what they thought would be most likely to transform the school.

They had two choices: a plan to hire Johns Hopkins University to run the building, and a plan to replace half the staff and implement changes locally.

In the end, here's what it came down to.

Johns Hopkins has a strong national reputation and a track record of improving outcomes at other low-performing schools.

"But it doesn't address all our specific needs," one teacher said. "Yes, they have a proven track record -- but not with our population (with many immigrant students who do not speak English)."

"I do like Johns Hopkins, but it's not customized," said another teacher.

The group voted, 11-1, to go with a turnaround plan developed by the principal. The general feeling was that it more adequately addressed the needs of the immigrant students.

That plan establishes a second site nearby, at the old School 56, for career and technical training for students -- including training so students can become translators -- as well as programs for parents and a GED program for older students. Students would have a longer school day, and many classes would have two teachers: one for the content area, and one to help students struggling with English. Various community groups would be brought in to provide supports.

"We like the turnaround," one teacher said. "It's local. It's family."

Federal requirements for that plan call for replacing half the instructional staff. Teachers and administrators (along with Dixon) are hoping that the state will be willing to count recent staff changes toward that number, so that teacher transfers would be minimal or even nonexistent. (It remains to be seen whether the state will see things that way.)

I'm pleased to be able to share with you some of the details about Lafayette's plan. I can do that because I was able to sit through the meeting there on Friday.

That's the good news.

Now for the bad news.

Principals from Lafayette and four other low-performing schools are presenting their turnaround plans to the School Board today.

Only I'm not allowed to attend those meetings -- meaning you don't get to find out what happens today.

That's because the board is not holding an official public meeting that would have to be open to anyone who wants to attend.

Instead, the board is skirting the state's open meetings law.

It is holding two sessions: one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

Each session will have four board members. It's no coincidence that that is exactly the maximum number of board members who can meet without having to open the meeting to the public -- because four is one less than a majority of the board.

What does this mean?

The board will be voting on the improvement plan for each school on Wednesday.

That will be the first and only meeting where the merits of each option for each school will be debated by the board publicly before the district sends it applications to Albany next week.


And with only two days left until the board vote, turnaround plans developed by the principals still have not been publicly released. (You can find copies of the EPO proposals here.) I asked Dixon late last week for copies, and she told me they were still being revised.

I asked for copies of the principals' turnaround plans again this morning -- as well as the outcomes of the building votes that happened on Friday -- and here's what spokesperson Elena Cala had to say: "Board members will continue to be briefed on these documents and vote outcomes today. I will try to have a better answer for you at the end of today as to when this data will be released."

The clock is ticking. The board will vote on these plans on Wednesday.

Is this the new age of transparency -- or more of the same old, same old?

- Mary Pasciak

Live blog of Parent Assembly at 6 p.m.

Hundreds of Buffalo parents will gather this evening and hear from local, state and federal officials -- as well as representatives from Say Yes to Education, the group that wants to bring a college tuition guarantee to Buffalo public and charter high school school graduates.

Join me for a live blog of what promises to be an interesting session.

- Mary Pasciak

Live blog of federal official at Common Council education meeting: 3 p.m.

Join me for a live blog this afternoon at 3 p.m., when Jason Snyder, assistant deputy secretary for education, talks to the Common Council's Education Committee about school turnarounds that work.

- Mary Pasciak

Extend the student registration deadline? No

The deadline for registering your child for elementary school in the Buffalo Public Schools came and went Nov. 28.

Plenty of parents had no idea that the deadline passed, and they let board members know it. The deadline was close to impossible to dig up on the district's website; the wrong deadline was listed in some places (including on the applications, although those were corrected by hand); and it was nowhere to be found on the district calendar online.

In fact, board member John Licata told the district's parent group on Tuesday: "A deadline that isn't announced isn't really a deadline... I'm certainly going to vote to open the window. It seems only fair. If the problem is that we didn't get the info to you, then we should bear the burden."

And he didn't seem to be the only board member who felt that way.

But Wednesday night, Jackie Ross Brown, director of student registration, told the board she did not support extending the deadline.

"I would be very uncomfortable at this point extending (it)," she told the board.


Well, she said nearly 2,000 parents got their applications in on time -- about the same number as most years. Extending the deadline would put those people at a "punitive disadvantage," she said, because allowing other students to join the lottery would mean more kids competing for the same seats -- thus worsening the odds for those who met the deadline.

The district accepts applications for months after the deadline, she noted, and those kids all get seats -- at the schools that still have openings at that point. (Read between the lines.)

Ross Brown said that this year, student placement letters will go out around Feb. 15.

Mark your calendar -- that's about two months earlier than usual. (It's also two months earlier than the estimate that her former boss, Mark Frazier, had given the board just last week.)

It's important that the letters go out earlier, she said, because usually, by the time parents find out which public school their child got admitted to, the private and parochial schools have already required a deposit. At that point, parents lose their money if they opt for public school.

"We continually run into some difficulties with private and parochial schools," she said.

And if the district extended its application deadline, then those placement letters would be delayed, she said.

Licata on Wednesday noted that, based on numbers from recent years, another 220 or 230 people might still be out there, waiting to register their child for school. And Ross Brown acknowledged, in response to a question from Ralph Hernandez, that on top of that, there are hundreds -- it wasn't clear exactly how many, but she said well over 300 -- additional pre-k parents who have not registered their children.

"We do not know why, but pre-k parents do not register until May or June," she said.

Maybe because they don't know the deadline is in November?

Keep in mind, all those people who miss the deadline will still get a seat for their child somewhere -- in other words, in a school that is so much not in demand that it still has openings.

Well, after discussing the issue for a little while on Wednesday, it seemed that everyone on the board was satisfied that things played out this year pretty much as they do every year in student registration. Ross Brown said her office did its usual due diligence in getting the word out about the registration deadline -- and if anyone missed it, that wasn't for lack of effort on the district's part.

"The cry you're hearing (from parents who missed the deadline), we've heard in the past," Ross Brown said.

The board did not take a formal vote, but there was consensus around the board table that the deadline would not be extended. Extending the deadline, they felt, would not be worth the consequence of delaying the placement letters.

Every year, the board complains that student enrollment is dropping. Board members are well aware that there are hundreds of kids on waiting lists at charter schools -- and board members frequently talk about how the district needs to acknowledge that it's in competition for those kids.


It seems to be an interesting coincidence that every year, the district does the same thing to get the word out to parents about its registration deadline -- and every year, they get about the same number of people who meet the deadline.

I guess there are two ways to look at that.

One is, as long as you're getting more or less the same number as the previous year, you're doing things right.

The other is, maybe if you did more to get the word out, you could actually increase that number.

It all depends how you look at it.

- Mary Pasciak

Live blog of School Board meeting at 5 p.m.: filling board vacancy and more

Please join me for a live blog of all four board committee meetings, which begin at 5 p.m. today.

It's going to be a busy night. Among other things, the board is scheduled to decide tonight how to fill the at large vacancy -- appoint Lou Petrucci or Mary Ruth Kapsiak to it, then interview candidates for that person's district seat (open to people who live in a particular area of the city), or open the seat to interested candidates from across the city.

The board is also expected to discuss whether to extend the student registration deadline, which was Nov. 28. Many parents have complained they were not aware of the deadline, and that the district did not do enough to advertise it.

- Mary Pasciak

The back story on that board vacancy -- and your chance to vote

This week, the Buffalo School Board will make an important decision about how to fill a vacancy left by at large member Chris Jacobs.

Technically, voters don't get a voice in how the seat should be filled. But if you read to the end of this post (or even scroll down to it), you can make your voice heard. So bear with me while I run through the basics of this issue -- along with some inside info you may not be aware of.

School boardThis will be the third vacancy in a year filled by the board, meaning one-third of its members will soon be appointed, rather than elected by voters.

Under state law, the board can go about filling the seat however it wants to, as long as it's by a majority board vote.

Today's story lays out the options in detail.

Here's the nutshell version: In the past, the board has appointed one of its district members to the at large vacancy. Two board members, Lou Petrucci and Mary Ruth Kapsiak, have said they want the seat. They argue that, given the enormity of issues facing the board, someone with more experience should get the seat.

Another argument involves the fact that the board has one month to fill the seat. Some people believe that may not be enough time to interview all those who are interested.

If the board moves Petrucci or Kapsiak into the at large seat, that would create a vacancy in either the Park District (South Buffalo) or Central District. The board would most likely then fill that district vacancy by asking for resumes of people living in that district who want the seat and interviewing those interested.

At least three board members (plus Jacobs, who won't be voting on this issue) have said they think the process should be opened up so that anybody in the city can apply for the at large position -- Jacobs was elected by voters across the city, some point out. And if sitting board members want to apply, they're welcome to -- along with everyone else. Petrucci and Kapsiak should be able to make the case for why they deserve the seat, some say.

Given all the interest in the city's schools, the board is likely to get a strong field of applicants from across Buffalo, some believe.

If the board opens up the process to anyone in the city, it's hard to predict who might get the seat.

If the board appoints Petrucci, there are signals that a clear favorite has already emerged to fill the Park District seat that would be vacated.

For months, there's been one name in particular I've heard being floated as the most likely to join the School Board next: Jack Coyle.

Sound familiar?

It should. Coyle was on the board for 12 years (including a couple as president), through 2007, when he decided not to seek re-election.

Jack CoyleOver the summer, when there was talk that Board President Lou Petrucci had his eye on a seat on the Common Council (something Petrucci vehemently denied when I asked him about it), Coyle's name was already swirling as the preferred candidate to take Petrucci's seat on the board representing South Buffalo.

And now that Petrucci has expressed interest in the at large vacancy created by Chris Jacobs' resignation, Coyle's name is circulating again.

Coyle says he hasn't made up his mind, but is considering seeking the board seat, if Petrucci gets the at large spot and that opens up the Park District seat. After a four-year break, he'd be ready to get back on the board, he said.

"I think they have some really critical decisions to make, and I would love to be involved," Coyle said.

But, he says, if he has to compete against Petrucci for the at large seat, he will opt out.

Coyle, whose wife is a retired teacher, says he was often at odds with BTF President Phil Rumore. Coyle is also not shy about his allegiances on the board: He has for years been close friends with Florence Johnson, he said. In fact, were Johnson not on the board, Coyle would likely not consider putting his hat in the ring, he said.

So there you have it.

Now, how do you think the board should go about filling its at large vacancy?

Here's your chance to weigh in:



- Mary Pasciak

Live blog of parent meeting at 6 p.m.: security issues and more

Join me for a live blog of the District Parent Coordinating Council meeting at 6 p.m. tonight.

Among the items on the agenda: Kevin Brinkworth will discuss security issues in the Buffalo Public Schools and answer questions.

- Mary Pasciak

How to get involved in education -- without leaving your house

This is going to be a busy and important week in education circles in Buffalo -- and there's no reason you can't be in on all of it.

The beauty of it is, you don't even have to worry about getting caught in the rain or the snow to do it.

There are four significant events: one on Tuesday, one on Wednesday, and two on Thursday.

And I'll be live blogging all of them.

You can cozy up at home with a hot cup of coffee and join me at, as you:

- Hear from Kevin Brinkworth, who oversees security in the Buffalo Public Schools. He'll be making a presentation and answering questions at the District Parent Coordinating Council meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday.

- Find out how the School Board decides to go about filling its at large vacancy. Will the board appoint one of its sitting members to the vacancy, or open it up to the entire city? That decision will be made during the committee meetings that begin at 5 p.m. Wednesday.

Council chambers- Learn what other cities are doing successfully to make their schools better. Jason Snyder, one of the highest-ranking people in the Obama administration's office for school turnarounds, will address the Common Council's Education Committee at 3 p.m. Thursday.

- Join hundreds of Buffalo parents, who will gather for the first Parent Assembly at 6 p.m. Thursday. They will be joined by a most interesting mix of education experts and public officials from the local, state and federal levels, who will be talking about school turnarounds and other issues. There's nothing quite like getting everyone in a room to speak the same language.

And during the same meeting on Thursday: Say Yes to Education will make its first public presentation about its plans help turn Buffalo's schools around and to offer a college tuition guarantee to city high school graduates.

Of course, all these meetings are open to the public. So if you're motivated to leave the house and head down in person, check out today's story for details on the location of each event.

- 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 |