Whatever Works: Charter Schools Thrive in Buffalo

On Sept. 10 teachers from the Buffalo public schools walked the line outside a meeting of the Buffalo Board of Education. They were staging what they called an “informational picket”— not the first time they have done so—to call attention to a remarkable fact: Buffalo’s teachers have not had a new contract in 10 years.

This is just the latest manifestation of the sorry state of Buffalo’s schools. This past summer the district reported that only 56 percent of its 32,000 students graduated from high school in the 2013–14 school year, as opposed to the New York State graduation average of 77.8 percent. And with 2012’s graduation rate as low as 47.8 percent, and Buffalo school district officials caught artificially inflating graduation numbers back in 2010, suspicious state officials are currently auditing the district’s figures.

Faced with such dismal facts, many Buffalo parents and school leaders have embraced what is still a profound and divisive controversy in New York City: charter schools. According to Kyle Rosenkrans, the interim president of the Northeast Charter Schools Network, 17 percent of Buffalo’s schoolchildren now attend charter schools, as opposed to 6 percent of New York City students.

He may actually be understating the numbers. According to the Buffalo school district’s 2013–14 budget analysis book, fully 24 percent of the city’s children now attend charter schools. While New York City’s residents still remain loyal to their public schools, almost one in four Buffalo parents have simply given up on the public school system and are now trying out a new education model. “We’ve been able to grow at a fairly fast clip,” Rosenkrans said.

Charter schools may be particularly attractive to the city’s East Buffalo black population, which comprises 51 percent of the city’s students. For example, Denise Stevens, an African- American cook’s assistant at Buffalo’s Sisters of Charity Hospital, sent her first-born son through the public school system, and he just barely got his degree. According to Stevens, public school teachers simply did not put in the work to focus on the special needs of young black males.

“Oh, God, it was horrible,” she said. “The teachers didn’t really have patience with special issue kids. … I would go into the school and sit in the back, and a lot of the teachers would just get rid of the kids. They didn’t want to take time out to find out what was going on. Culturally, they didn’t take the time to find what was going on with African-American kids.”

When her younger daughter was ready for school, Stevens enrolled her in East Buffalo’s King Center Charter School. Stevens says that over the last seven years King Center’s teachers have worked overtime to enrich her daughter’s education and teach her about her black heritage.

“You ever see a place where the people have a real passion, and stay after hours?” Stevens said. “Where they don’t just treat it like a job—they take the time after hours? They teach them about our culture. They teach them about our history. That kind of moves me.”

But according to Phil Rumore, the president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, parents have been given a false impression of Buffalo charter schools’ performance. Buffalo’s charter schools, he claims, have the right to deny entry to or expel any underperforming student. Last spring the union published a study that concluded that local charter schools were systematically turning away English as a Second Language students, as well as students with learning disabilities, to cook their graduation numbers.

“They can kick out students from the charter schools and send them back to the public schools,” Rumore said. “And you know when that usually happens? Right before exams. … There shouldn’t be a charter school that has absolutely no ESL students. They shouldn’t be able to kick students out whenever they don’t want them. Other than that, we love them.”

Immediately after the union published its study, the Northeast Charter Schools Network aired a series of radio ads promoting Buffalo’s charter schools. Rosenkrans still bristles at the critique. “We’re under a state obligation to recruit high-need students, including ESL students,” he says. “We have to report to the state on our progress, and if we’re not meeting our obligation, the state has to intervene. They haven’t so far. There’s no basis for this criticism other than sloppy statistical analysis.”

Charter school supporters have their own complaints, mostly about the amount of money they get from the state. In September a group of charter school parents filed a lawsuit against the state Education Department, charging that the Department’s funding formula only provides them with 60 percent of the funds it provides to the average Buffalo public school. According to Terrence Connors, the lawyer representing the parents, the state must finance charter schools fairly if Buffalo is to keep on its new path to prosperity.

“The economic rebirth of Buffalo, the momentum we have achieved in Western New York is palpable,” Connors said. “But we’re not going to achieve the momentum we want until our schools are better. We have to make sure that our schools are more and more creative. And charter schools can work.”

Even as Buffalo begins to claw its way out of its economic doldrums, its schools remain a constant source of tension. This spring a new school board majority, led by developer Carl Paladino and Buffalo ReformED chair and retired Gateway- Longview CEO James Sampson, took power and promised radical new reforms, with charter schools at the center of their agenda. Superintendent Pamela Brown promptly resigned, 63 teachers were laid off, and the teachers union threatened a lawsuit. A group of community leaders and parents recently rallied to claim that the state Education Department has shortchanged the Buffalo school district to the tune of nearly $140 million. And of course, there is the question of Buffalo’s iffy graduation numbers.

Throughout these fights, Buffalo’s charter schools continue to gain popularity, unlike the response in some other parts of the state. Seals Nevergold, a member of the school board faction that recently lost power, was initially skeptical of charter schools. Now she recognizes that they are here to stay: “I see them as a viable alternative,” she said. “At this point, Buffalo is fairly saturated with charter schools.”

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