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Freeing Buffalo schools from the stranglehold of City Hall

Two years ago, then-Superintendent James Williams asked Erie 1 BOCES Superintendent Don Ogilvie to lead a review of what were then the seven persistently lowest-achieving schools in the district.

At the time, Ogilvie said that those seven schools weren't isolated examples of failure -- they were symptoms of a districtwide dysfunction.

To put it simply, the adults in the Buffalo Public Schools had a bad case of the nasties -- and the students were suffering as a result.

Here's what I wrote back in August 2010:

A six-page letter released this week harshly criticizes the Buffalo Public Schools administration and urges district personnel to move beyond their differences to develop mutual trust and respect.

"This existence of deep divisions within the district among the adults, along with the countless examples of their cancerous effect, must be set aside and replaced with a culture that continually nurtures and supports all of them in fulfilling their professional responsibilities to the children," wrote Donald A. Ogilvie, superintendent of Erie 1 Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

Buffalo Superintendent James A. Williams had asked Ogilvie to oversee the recent reports on the district's seven persistently failing schools. In his letter, Ogilvie cites a host of systemic problems that, unless they are resolved, will continue to produce more failing schools.

"There has been the inclination of central office and school buildings to blame each other for the failure of individual schools, when in truth they must both share responsibility," Ogilvie wrote.

Well, fast-forward a little more than two years.

This time, it's distinguished educator writing the report, at the request of state Education Commissioner John King.

And this time, we're talking about 28 schools that are failing. That's four times as many as two years ago, and nearly half of all the schools in the district.

In her report, as today's story notes, Elliott took things a step farther than Ogilvie did.

While Ogilvie called out the schools and City Hall for not playing nice, Elliott specifically puts the onus on City Hall, painting central office staff as clueless, out of touch, unresponsive and generally incompetent.

Distinguished educator Judy Elliott’s plan for improving the Buffalo Public Schools reads something like an indictment of top school administrators for the consistent failure of the system.

Central office administrators are out of touch with what happens in the classrooms, she wrote, and they rarely leave City Hall to visit schools. They either ignore requests for help from the schools or fail to respond adequately.

And decision-making for everything from staffing to budgeting has been happening in City Hall – not in the schools, as it should be, Elliott wrote in her report, which the state Education Department released to The Buffalo News on Wednesday.

“Buffalo City School District is a centralized system that provides little school autonomy,” she wrote. “The structure of governance has historically yielded poor student outcomes. Priority school principals uniformly voice that they are disconnected, unguided and unsupported due to a lack of service and support from the central office.”

As things stand, central office calls the shots -- and they're not exactly hitting the bull's-eye, to put it mildly.

Here's one of the most telling lines from her report: Practices that have not demonstrated effectiveness (e.g., instructional, opreations, budgeting for student achievement) continue to be implemented.

In other words, for years, nobody has really bothered to look too closely at whether what they're doing works.

They just keep doing it anyway.

It's time to end the insanity, Elliott says in her report, and restore the power back to the principals -- the people who see firsthand every day exactly what's happening in the schools.

Here's a copy of the outline of her action plan:

BPS Distinguished Educator Plan Oct 2012

That was accompanied by more than three dozen specific recommended actions.

Here are some of the highlights:

- Create school-based budgets based on per student spending for Title I and III.
- Hold monthly principal meetings for the 28 priority schools.
- Decentralize professional development.
- Find ways to give students more GED opportunities.
- Expand career and technical program offerings.
- Give principals a voice in who is hired for their schools.

Check out the full set of recommendations for yourself:

BPS Recommended Actions Oct 2012

- 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 |