Last week, New York State Education Commissioner John B. King took two decisive actions. The first was unpleasant, but fairly common: he rejected the proposed turnaround plan the district submitted for two of their lowest performing schools: East and Lafayette high schools. The second was radical and without precedent: he ordered the district to work with an adjacent board of cooperative educational services, Erie 1 BOCES, which serves the suburban districts surrounding Buffalo. At a minimum, the schools must partner with Erie 1 BOCES to provide access to career and technical training to their students. Or more radically, the schools can contract with them as an education management organization and give them control over all substantive operations, including budget, staffing and academics.
This kind of assertive but appropriate action is what these schools—having been “persistently lowest achieving” since 2009—need. Four years ago, East High School had a 44 percent graduation rate. Lafayette, only 36 percent. Since then, the numbers have only gotten worse. Just 27 percent of East’s students graduated last year, and at Lafayette, only 21 percent graduated.
In addition to allowing these schools to fail students year after year, the district itself has failed to submit an acceptable plan to work with an education management organization of their choice. Fortunately the time for new decision-making has come.
It’s important to note that this move is not a state takeover, as the state is not proposing that the state department of education should control the schools’ day-to-day operations. Rather, it’s directing the schools themselves to take action and improve the quality of education they provide their students.
What is unique about this action is that rather than moving students around within the geographic boundaries of their current school district, when the district as a whole struggles with performance this directive will provide students attending these Buffalo City schools access the same quality of services that their counterparts in higher performing suburban districts can access. District-wide, the Buffalo School district had only a 47 percent graduation rate in 2012. Continuing to limit the options available to those provided by a district that is struggling almost assures that at best, these students would be offered access to another low-performing program. At this time, it is unknown which one of the two paths offered the district will choose—to offer their students career and technical training only, or partner more broadly with Erie 1 BOCES. The district has until August 12 to inform the state of their decision.
The commissioner’s action has elicited strong feelings, with many complaining that the Commissioner’s decisions is unfair and hasn’t given the schools enough credit for the progress they have made. But whatever progress these schools have made is not enough to compensate for the fact that more than two out of three students still don’t even make it to graduation, and that the number of students reaching that goal has decreased significantly in recent years. Something needs to change, and this step forward may be the catalyst to start that change.