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Why Buffalo's attendance problem is actually worse than it seems

Remember the report that came out last year that found that nearly half the high school students in Buffalo missed nearly a month of school or more? And that one in three high school students in Buffalo miss more than seven weeks of school?

Well, it turns out that students are missing even more school than the report indicated.


Because students who were suspended were not marked as absent.

That's right.

A student could be suspended for a day, a week, or a full month -- but as far as the district's record-keeping goes, that student would be counted as present for every day he or she was suspended.

Associate Superintendent Will Keresztes says that's how the state has directed schools to keep their attendance records. The way he explained it, a suspended student cannot be considered absent because he or she is not allowed to be in school and so therefore cannot technically be absent from a place he or she is not allowed to be.


Well, State Ed confirmed that.

"The commissioner ruled that for students under the compulsory school age suspended from school, only where the district provides equivalent alternative instruction and the student fails to attend, may a student be marked absent," SED spokesman Jonathan Burman wrote in an email, referencing a 1990 commissioner's ruling.

(Worth noting: a number of other states, including California, figure that when a student is suspended and therefore not in school, that student should actually be marked absent.)

Let's take a minute to think through the implications of this.

We already know that the schools with the worst attendance problems are also generally the schools with the most suspensions. But as bad as those schools' attendance problems seem, they're actually worse, because all those kids who are suspended are counted as being in school.

Keresztes agreed.

Empty desksHe said it would take some data work to figure out just how much of an impact it would make if suspended students were counted as absent. (It's not as simple as it might seem, because you have to know exactly how many days each student was suspended, so that requires dipping into the student-level data.)

For the time being, let's just consider one school as an example.

Average daily attendance at East High School through the end of November 2011 was 80.5 percent. That's a number that counted all the suspended students as having been in school.

How many days did students miss for suspensions during that time?

Well, there were 217 short-term suspensions at East during September, October and November. But most were for more than one day. For example, there were 81 suspensions for five days each -- which account for 405 days of suspensions.

When you do the math, it turns out students missed 782 days for short-term suspensions.

Add to that the 31 long-term suspensions. The district does not report out the length of each long-term suspension, as it does for each short-term suspension, so we don't know how many days those 31 long-term suspensions represent. But we do know each one is for six days or longer. So at the very least, those long-term suspensions account for another 186 days missed.

Between the two, East students missed at least 968 days for suspensions in the first three months of 2011-12.

During that period, there were 56 days of instruction.

That means on an average day, at least 17 students at East were not in school because they were suspended.

There are 527 students enrolled at East. That means on an average day, 3 percent of the students at East were not in class because they were suspended.

So, if suspensions were counted as absences, East's average daily attendance for the first three months of this year would be less than 77.5, rather than 80.5 percent.

Does a few percentage points really make a difference?

You can argue it either way.

- Mary Pasciak

Finally, Skype -- and then there were two

The board this weekend interviewed four consultants interested in finding Buffalo's next superintendent.

Two noteworthy developments arose from that meeting.

First, two of the firms -- PROACT Search and Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates (both out of Illinois) -- interviewed remotely, via Skype, I'm told. (I wasn't able to be there, unfortunately, but have talked to some of the people who were.)

I can remember more than one board meeting in the past couple of years when someone suggested that a board member or someone else in another city join the proceedings via Skype -- only to be told that the district's technical crew couldn't make that happen.

That news, of course, always spurred a flurry of outraged emails into my inbox, with readers offering up their own services or that of their teenage kids to help the district get a Skype connection set up.

Well, no more, it seems.

Now that the precedent has been set, it seems that the board will never again be able to rule out giving full access to a meeting to folks who are out of town.

So that's the first major news item out of Saturday's board meeting.

The second: the board, by consensus, narrowed the list of search firms to two: Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, and Say Yes to Education in collaboration with Cascade Consulting.

Which of those firms will get the contract?

More on this in the next couple of days.

- Mary Pasciak

Who will find Buffalo's next superintendent?

The School Board was supposed to choose a superintendent search firm at the end of November or early December, but that process has been delayed by about two months.

Williams into officeThe board was busy dealing with school improvement plans, finding a new board member and other issues, according to Rosalyn Taylor, vice president of executive affairs. So the search for James Williams' permanent successor was delayed.

The board in mid-November issued a request for proposals for search firms. Seven proposals came in. An ad hoc committee narrowed that list to four.

The board is meeting at 10 a.m. Saturday in Room 801 of City Hall to interview the four firms. The meeting is open to the public -- if you want to attend, you'll need to make sure you use the front door of City Hall that is the farthest to the left. The building superintendent told me that door is open from 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Saturdays.

Each interview is scheduled to take about 40 minutes.

Here's the skinny on each of the firms, to give you some of the nuts and bolts and a flavor of what might set each firm apart from the others:

PROACT Search, Wilmette, Ill. Searches include Hillsborough County, Fla.; Montgomery, Ala.; Memphis, Tenn.; and Detroit.

Average search draws 93 potential candidates.

Proposed timeline: Begins with stakeholders meeting in December 2011; concludes with finalist interviews in March/April 2012 and hiring of superintendent in April/May 2012.

“We believe that our full range of educational and business expertise and consulting capabilities provides you with contacts not available through many usual approaches to an executive search. We assure you we will conduct a national search and that we do not have a ‘stable’ of ready candidates who want a new job. For each search that our firm conducts, we assemble a team that we believe is best suited to meet the needs of the particular school district we are serving.”

Cost: $37,750, plus travel expenses ($1,000 to $3,000) and ancillary expenses ($2,000 to $4,000).

Vincent J. Coppola, University at Buffalo. Searches include Binghamton, Corning, Lancaster and Oswego.

Would narrow the applicant pool to six to eight semifinalists. The board would narrow the pool to five finalists.

Proposed timeline: Dec. 6, 2011, board determines salary range and begins advertising online the next day; concludes with mid-April interviews of finalists, followed by May 5 announcement of new superintendent and June 1 start date.

“We attend, on a regular basis, state and national conferences to not only stay current with school reform initiatives but to also meet and become better acquainted with school superintendents in New York State and throughout the country. We always set up consulting tables at the fall and winter conferences of the New York State School Superintendents to better familiarize myself with candidates seeking positions. Having served as a school superintendent, I am very familiar with many of the superintendents in New York State, as well as other aspiring superintendents.”

Cost: $25,000, plus out-of-pocket expenses and $5,000 for processing the credentials of the candidates. Additional expenses also include the cost of printing the brochure ($600) and bringing the final candidate to Buffalo for an interview.

Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, Rosemont, Ill. Searches include Nashville, Tenn.; Wichita, Kan.; Montgomery County, Md.; and Virginia Beach, Va.

Has done more than 850 national searches in the past 23 years.

Proposed timeline: 12 to 18 weeks of selection of the search firm. Begins with planning session one week after firm is hired; concludes with selection of superintendent 12 to 18 weeks after firm is hired.

“During a typical year, HYA conducts 50 to 60 executive searches, with many occurring concurrently. We find that the large quantity of searches the firm conducts puts us at a competitive advantage with respect to other search firms, in that our volume places us in more frequent contact with a larger number of potential candidates, many of whom are not actively seeking employment but are then known to us and can be recruited when or if an appropriate position arises.”

Cost: $40,000, plus travel and other expenses estimated at $5,000; advertisements estimated at $3,500 to $7,000; candidate expenses estimated at $4,000 to $7,000; and board expenses (to travel to finalist’s home community) estimated at $2,000.

Say Yes to Education in collaboration with Cascade Consulting Group, Seattle, Wash. Searches include Syracuse; Nashville, Tenn.; Tacoma, Wash.; and Inglewood, Calif. Has conducted over 200 searches in the past 21 years.

Pool would be narrowed to up to 12 semifinalists. Say Yes-Cascade would conduct preliminary interviews with candidates in their home community. The pool would eventually be pared to two to four finalists.

Proposed timeline: 90 days.

“The success of the Buffalo Say Yes initiative will be largely dependent on the ability of the next superintendent to establish clear expectations and then develop and manage systems that ensure collaboration, transparency, implementation, evaluation, and continuous, data-driven, and accountable improvement of programs with a broad network of stakeholder groups throughout the city. We believe the Say Yes-Cascade approach will result in the selection of the most effective candidate to lead this effort during the next decade.”

Cost: $30,000. Say Yes will cover all additional costs, including travel.

- Mary Pasciak

Board members lambasted for inaction on suspension policy; tensions run high

For the past several weeks, a small crowd has been attending School Board meetings, pushing for an end to out-of-school suspensions for nonviolent offenses. Many of the same people take their turn at the podium, meeting after meeting.

But, while many of the faces were the same last night, the atmosphere in the room took a decidedly heated turn. Today's story gives you a sense of some of what happened. People are clearly not happy that it's been 19 months since Lafayette High School student Jawaan Daniels was shot at a bus stop after being suspended and sent home in the middle of the day.

Here's some of the rest of what happened last night.

Speakers seem to be taking aim more squarely at board members. One, John Washington, went so far as to call them "murderers."

"I am appalled that this is called a board of education. To me it seems you are bored of education," he said. "Instead of educating children, you are putting them on the streets -- streets you would be afraid to walk in. You are denying children their education, and for that you are murderers.

"I propose that when someone is suspended from school, you have to walk their route home from school."

A few speakers assigned racial motivations to the board's delay in changing the suspension policy.

“If politics is the art of delaying action until it's no longer relevant, you all are excellent politicians,” said Brian Trzeciak, of Citizen Action, the group that has been championing the suspension issue. “If Jawaan was white, this issue would have been resolved 19 months ago.”

The growing discontent with board members is starting to bubble up to the surface, with more open talk of targeting board members during next year's elections.

Jesse Lenney of the Working Families Party let board members know that his party would be backing board members in the next election in 2013, and that one of the yardsticks would be action on the suspension issue.

“We’ll be voting and running for office,” he said.

While he was up at the podium, Jim Anderson chastised board members for not taking action months ago, not sponsoring their own public forums about suspensions, not communicating with the public, and not listening attentively when the public speaks to the board.

“You know what's wrong here? You don't even speak. You put it on the superintendent's back. And now you want us to believe you'll speak on behalf of the community? We're not feeling it,” he said. “We see the reactions here. Coldheartedness. Stiffness. Some of you turn your back.”

Board President Lou Petrucci several times during the meeting asked the audience to withhold their applause, chants and hoots.

“I want to hear everyone speak tonight. Chanting isn't going to help it. You want us to listen? I will gladly listen. Then give the respect of letting other people speak,” he said at one point.

At that point, many audience members in the standing room-only crowd started chanting, “Books, not prison” – a reference to the thinking that suspensions pave the way to prison for students – prompting chief of staff James Kane to stand up and tell the crowd, “No chanting. No chanting.” Dixon, in turn, directed Kane: “Jim, sit down.”

- Mary Pasciak

The $200 million scuffle over school funding

The District Parent Coordinating Council and Buffalo ReformED joined a few education reform groups across the state today to issue a joint statement supporting the governor's plan to allocate $250 million in the 2012-13 budget for school performance grants.

School leaders across the state have called on the governor to instead allocate $50 million for the competitive grants, and allocate the other $200 million to school districts through standard aid formulas.

The statement from the reform groups and parent groups today echoed Cuomo's often-used line that New York spends the most on education than any state, but is 38th in graduation rate, and takes to task "the special interests in New York State (who) have fought successfully to protect the education bureaucracy at the expense of our students."

“Throwing money at the bureaucracy and watching students fail simply doesn’t work," the statement said. "Governor Cuomo’s bold proposal to reward districts that show higher student performance truly puts students first.”

The competitive grants will be awarded to districts for improving student outcomes and management. They represent about one-third of the statewide $805 million (4 percent) increase in school aid included in the governor's budget proposal.

The state education commissioner and superintendents from the biggest districts across the state appealed to lawmakers during committee hearings this week to take $200 million out of the $250 for the competitive grants and allocate that money for operating aid distributed among districts.

“In the past, the Big Five districts were often the ones that did not qualify for those performance grants, so right off the bat it’s money that won’t come our way,” Buffalo interim Superintendent Amber M. Dixon said.

Commissioner John B. King Jr. called for state lawmakers to adopt the approach backed by the Board of Regents, which allocates $50 million for the competitive grants, rather than $250 million.

Various groups representing school districts and unions have also called for the allocation to be trimmed to $50 million.

“Competition might be healthy if you're training for a race or on a team but it's not healthy or okay when you have rural parts of the state like Jordan-Elbridge competing with Scarsdale or New York City competing with Syosset or needy districts like Binghamton and Buffalo competing with each other for money desperately needed to ensure that all our children have an opportunity to learn," Zakiyah Ansari, advocacy director of Allicance for Quality Education, said in a statement. "Test scores should not be used to determine whether or not students will receive the classroom resources they need to succeed.”

“We began last week by honoring the memory of Dr. King I wonder what he would say if he knew we were considering making our children compete to get to the mountain top,” said Ansari, whose group is supported by teachers unions.

The statement issued today by the DPCC, Buffalo ReformED, Democrats for Education Reform, Students for Education Reform, NYCan (New York Campaign For Achievement Now) and others, said the grants would reward districts that implement successful strategies and establish a set of best practices that could be replicated by other districts.

“As they have in years past, the special interests are fighting hard against rewarding performance, but there is little outrage over our growing number of failing schools," the joint statement said. "Instead, these special interests advocate for a blank check to protect the adults at the expense of the students and grow the bureaucracy."

- Mary Pasciak

Should the board offer Dixon a two-year contract? Cast your vote

School Board member Jason McCarthy is planning to make a motion tonight to offer Interim Superintendent Amber Dixon a two-year contract.

DixonHe says Dixon is doing a good job, and that the district would benefit from some stability in City Hall.

It's no coincidence that the board is scheduled to meet Saturday to interview the four consultants in the running to conduct the superintendent search. McCarthy says the board should act now and save itself the time and money of a superintendent search.

Sharon Belton Cottman and others say the board needs to follow through with what it decided months ago it would do: Conduct a national search to find the best candidate. If, once the search has been done, Dixon comes out on top, at that point, the board can offer her a contract, they say.

What do you think?



- Mary Pasciak

Live blog of School Board meeting at 5:30 p.m.: suspensions, Dixon and more

Please join me at 5:30 p.m. today for a live blog of the School Board meeting.

Among the items to watch for tonight: supporters of a change in the district's suspension policy are expected to be out in force again, pushing for an end to out-of-school suspensions for nonviolent offenses; Jason McCarthy will introduce a motion to offer Amber Dixon a two-year contract; and Ralph Hernandez will submit a resolution to create a standing committee to advise the district on multilingual education issues.


- Mary Pasciak

How many times did the same students get suspended? Find your school

In the midst of all the talk about suspensions, I've gotten a bunch of questions about the recidivism rate.

While I can't give you specifics -- for instance, how many students got suspended five times or more -- I did ask the district for the number of students suspended at each school, versus the number of suspensions.

Why are those two numbers significant?

Because the same student can be suspended multiple times. Here's what I mean: Overall, the Buffalo Public Schools had 12,905 short-term suspensions in 2010-11. (Short-term means one to five days, assigned by a principal.) But only 5,999 students got suspended. So, on average, a student who got suspended ended up suspended twice, more or less.

In some schools, the average student who got suspended was suspended about three times: North Park Middle led the pack, followed by Riverside High School, Southside Elementary, Waterfront Elementary, Buffalo Elementary School of Technology and Harriett Ross Tubman.

At the other end of the spectrum, at some schools, most students who were suspended were suspended only once: Early Childhood Center 82, Olmsted 64, D'Youville Porter, Hutch Tech and Middle Early College.

Here's the full list:

School # School Total students 2010-11 Short-term suspensions 2010-11 Students who got short-term suspensions Average # of suspensions per student suspended
3 D'Youville Porter 685 10 10 1.0
6 BEST 670 317 118 2.7
17 Early Childhd Ctr 17 455 93 58 1.6
18 Pantoja 495 149 78 1.9
19 Native Am Magnet 510 155 73 2.1
27 Hillery Park 600 171 70 2.4
30 Frank Sedita 782 381 173 2.2
31 Harriett Ross Tubman 501 523 197 2.7
32 Bennett Park 948 65 49 1.3
33 Bilingual Center 33 537 112 72 1.6
37 Futures Academy 587 318 176 1.8
39 MLK 765 323 176 1.8
43 Lovejoy Discovery 554 211 99 2.1
45 Intl School 45 927 232 128 1.8
53 Community Schl 53 424 210 109 1.9
54 Blackman 503 125 50 2.5
56 Olmsted 56 629 58 43 1.3
59 Drew Science Magnet 607 371 169 2.2
61 Early Childhd Ctr 61 324 95 54 1.8
64 Olmsted 64 583 2 2 1.0
65 Roosevelt 392 27 20 1.4
66 North Park Middle 544 646 206 3.1
67 Discovery 630 53 22 2.4
69 Houghton 538 189 99 1.9
72 Lorraine 608 76 45 1.7
74 Hamlin Park 527 74 36 2.1
76 Badillo 673 287 111 2.6
79 Grabiarz 756 436 176 2.5
80 Highgate Heights 643 168 83 2.0
81 School 81 750 132 64 2.1
82 Early Childhd Ctr 82 481 4 4 1.0
84 Erie Co Health Ctr 78      
89 Wright 901 177 118 1.5
90 Drew ECC 90 411 64 30 2.1
91 BUILD 660 398 172 2.3
93 Southside 1100 507 173 2.9
94 West Hertel 654 151 85 1.8
95 Waterfront 971 710 260 2.7
97 Austin 350 156 77 2.0
99 Makowski 942 116 65 1.8
187 Performing Arts 996 206 135 1.5
195 City Honors 990 34 27 1.3
197 MST Prep 445 290 150 1.9
198 International Prep 506 124 80 1.6
200 Bennett 1134 599 268 2.2
204 Lafayette 654 112 82 1.4
205 Riverside 879 1028 359 2.9
206 South Park 931 447 223 2.0
212 da Vinci 503 11 6 1.8
301 Burgard 714 724 299 2.4
302 Emerson 566 100 78 1.3
304 Hutch Tech 1352 19 17 1.1
305 McKinley 1340 341 228 1.5
307 East 720 440 271 1.6
402 OTC 63 1    
415 Middle Early College 370 31 26 1.2
  Total 36738 12905 5999 2.2


- Mary Pasciak

How many suspensions were given to kindergartners last year?

When I was covering one of the public hearings this month about suspensions in the Buffalo Public Schools, one of the things that piqued my interest was a comment made by Madge Whiskey, who operates a day care center.

She talked about a 5-year-old in her care who had been suspended for more than a week.

"How could they suspend a 5-year-old baby?" she asked. "I stand here today because I'm peeved. I'm upset. The system has failed our children."

And then, at another public hearing that my colleague, Sandy Tan, covered later that day, an elementary school principal also addressed the issue of 5-year-olds getting suspended. Sandy wrote:

Dawn DiNatale, the principal of Stanley M. Makowski Early Childhood Center, spoke at the evening meeting in Waterfront Elementary School.

She mentioned a kindergartner who was going to a hearing this week for her third long-term suspension. [A kindergartner headed for a third long-term suspension -- that means this 5-year-old is about to be suspended for more than a third week of school this year. Remember, only the superintendent or her designee can assign a long-term suspension, which is six days or longer.]
Her school has an open classroom setup, and the child has repeatedly run out of class and out of the building, jeopardizing her own safety.

"I am not proud to say that we cannot contain this child," she said. "A lot of people look at me and say, 'How can you not do that with a 5-year-old?' I invite any one of you to come and spend a day with me and children who are in true crisis. We are literally running after them or pulling them down from shelving or things that would harm them."

Behavior improves when a child's needs are met, she said, but schools just don't have all the resources to meet all those needs. In kindergarten, for instance, her class sizes run 28 students per room. Teaching assistants, aides and substitutes are also often unavailable or undertrained, she said.

One other note to add to the mix: Interim Superintendent Amber Dixon this month said she was putting a stop to all suspensions for students in pre-k and kindergarten for "insubordination," a term that seems to cover a lot of ground.

Well, all this got me to wondering just how many of the district's youngest students had been suspended last year.

I asked for a breakdown of last year's suspensions, by grade level. The district apparently does not routinely break down suspensions in that way, but agreed to run a report for me that did.

The breakdown is interesting for a number of reasons.

For one thing, as you'll see, there were 200 suspensions of kindergartners last year, along with 35 suspensions of children in pre-k. (The totals include short-term suspensions of a week or less, assigned by a principal, as well as long-term suspensions of longer than a week, assigned by central office.)

I also thought it was interesting to see that the grade levels with the most suspensions -- by far -- were seventh and ninth grade. There were 2,427 seventh-graders suspended last year, and 2,323 ninth-graders. (There are -- roughly -- the same number of students at each grade level in the district in most years.)

Following in third place: eighth grade, with 1,731 suspensions.

Here's the full breakdown:

Grade Short-term suspensions 2010-11 Long-term suspensions 2010-11 Total suspensions 2010-11
Pre-k 30 5 35
K 180 20 200
1 256 44 300
2 408 69 477
3 593 51 644
4 891 83 974
5 1293 120 1413
6 1314 140 1454
7 2145 282 2427
8 1460 271 1731
9 1972 351 2323
10 1221 256 1477
11 699 161 860
12 443 111 554
Total 12905 1964 14869


- Mary Pasciak

The Atlantic asks: 'Why Does Buffalo Pay for Its Teachers to Have Plastic Surgery?'

In a piece today by Jordan Weissmann, the Atlantic pokes at Buffalo's cosmetic surgery rider for district employees.

He opens it:

In Buffalo, New York, the heart of the American rust-belt, the public school system pays for its teachers to get plastic surgery. Hair removal. Miscrodermabrasian. Liposuction. If you can name the procedure, it's probably covered.

No, I am not exaggerating. And no, this article is not an excuse to make "Hot For Teacher" cracks. When I write that Buffalo's school system pays, I mean it literally. The perk is included as a self-insured rider in its teachers' contract. Therefore, the district has to cover the cost of each nip and tuck itself. There's no co-pay, so the school district ends up footing the entire bill. It estimates the current annual cost at $5.2 million, down from $9 million in 2009.

This in a city where the average teacher makes roughly $52,000 a year. The plastic surgery tab would pay salaries for 100 extra educators.

(Thanks to Mike Canfield, one of my former journalism students at Buffalo State College, for sending me a heads up on this one.)

To read the rest of Weissmann's piece, click here.

- 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 |