The letter was thought to be so critical, that intitially administration officials did not release it to school board members until ordered to do so by the state.
|The purpose of the Buffalo Joint Intervention Team (JIT) visits was to review data and identify likely factors related to persistent low achievement recorded by eight school buildings within the Buffalo Public Schools (District). This commentary is drawn from the findings, conclusions, and recommendations of the eight JIT reports and is offered as context for undertaking the enormous responsibility of rebuilding the system that includes both the central office and buildings that comprise the Buffalo Public Schools.
At best, the State Education Department mandated JIT process provides a snapshot of relevant conditions associated with persistent low performance in schools. Constrained by a compressed timeline and limited resources, the process confirms what is obvious, rather than providing the opportunity for a study, reflection and testing of findings.
In addition to the limitations of the JIT process itself, there is also the inherently complex nature of the Buffalo Public School district. This is a system that is not easily comprehended, let alone changed. However, it is my belief that the large number of schools in one district identified for PLA status is cause for great concern, and suggests that the issues are not only within individual buildings, but across the district.
Two essential questions must be posed: 1) Are these eight buildings individually and solely the cause of their own poor performance and ineffectiveness; or, are there systemic factors that in some combination result in and contribute to the persistent low achievement of students? 2) Further, if there are systemic factors which in some way contribute to the status of these eight schools, could there be additional schools just as likely to be identified in the future?
This memorandum shares insights and puts forth generalizations which are drawn from an overview of the eight separate JIT visits. They are being offered by an experienced leader from outside but informed by multiple perspectives, always cognizant of the responsibilities I have accepted as well as an earnest concern for the success of the Buffalo Public Schools. Hopefully, these additional conclusions will assist the Superintendent and Board in working with the seven PLA and one JIT schools. In addition, these are designed to lead improvement of the system which governs all of them, as well as any other buildings which may be subject to being identified in the future.
Need to Support Students as Part of the Focus on Academic Performance
The leadership of the District is to be commended for its tenacious focus on academic performance as the cornerstone for renewing the Buffalo Public Schools and transforming the lives of the young people for whom they are accountable and responsible. However, top down direction of improvements only to curriculum and instruction, while necessary, are not sufficient for all staff or students to achieve the necessary academic success or the District to claim victory. The sole focus on improvement of curriculum and instruction will meet the needs of many but not all students. Additional supports and interventions will be needed to build the District’s capacity to serve all its students’ needs.
It is my sense that the District believes any discussion or investment in student support initiatives would be seen as diminishing the focus on academic achievement. Further, that broadening the scope of professional development to include student engagement strategies would be an invitation to displace the goals of the District’s academic plan and permit the return to lowered expectations and former practices, which did not serve to renew the District in the past or demonstrate respect for the inherent right of students to a high quality education. It is wise to consider both implications, yet it is obvious by the sheer number of schools identified as persistently low achieving, that the overall performance has not improved. Absences and suspensions are excessive, drop-outs continue, and the graduation rate is dismal and must be addressed. Academic expectations are not enough.
It is time to demonstrate that renewing the Buffalo Public Schools will not only require focus on literacy achievement but also a pragmatic acceptance that multiple factors require direct support for those who are most closely depended (teachers and administrators) upon to make the necessary changes.
Need to Embrace a Differentiated Approach to Literacy
Among the important commitments that have been made in the last five years in Buffalo is the emphasis on developing literacy. The plan has been to begin with the elementary schools and then move the focus to improving the secondary schools. Making the changes needed to date has required considerable attention to programs, resources, and training of staff.
However, the implementation is far from complete even after considerable time and resources have been invested. This can be clearly observed in the partial and inconsistent implementation of targeted instructional practices; as well as in the use of instructional resources across classrooms, buildings, and ultimately the District.
Professional development has not reached deeply into the teaching and administrative staffs. This is partly the result of the contractual language that allows for administrators and teachers to opt out of training. However, it can be said that some have opted out in response to the design and delivery of the PLO’s (professional learning opportunities) being offered. In either case, there can be no sustained improvement in academic achievement without increasing the capacity, confidence, and commitment of all administrators and teachers to improving student achievement.
The approach being taken to develop improved literacy at the elementary level does not appear to have been adapted for use at the secondary level. Most secondary level teachers are subject matter specialists and may not yet have the planning and instructional skills required to deliver successfully the content let alone integrate literacy and provide the required remediation to improve student achievement. More importantly, there is an almost universal rejection by secondary teachers that it is their responsibility to focus on literacy across the content areas, particularly because the current Regents requirements relate to subject content.
With the population of the Buffalo Public Schools becoming increasingly diverse in terms of ethnicity, language, and prior schooling, the District must find a way to address low levels of literacy among secondary age students. Add to this the transience of student populations, the relative inexperience of teachers and administrators in the highest need schools in the city of Buffalo, and the ability of students as well as teachers to opt out, one way or another, and there is a virtual cessation of any academic achievement gains that have occurred in many of the elementary schools.
It is imperative that more attention be given to student engagement and support systems while not lowering the expectations for increased literacy among students and the capacity and commitment of teachers to affect this priority across the District. It must be re-emphasized that the District has invested wisely in focusing the early reform efforts on using literacy as the primary change agent in the aspiration level of students, school district and city of Buffalo.
Need to Rethink and Redesign the Role of Central Office
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. When there are eight schools under review, and possibly more in the near future, it is even more important to presume that the District views itself as more than just a part owner of the school failures that are being revealed.
The organization chart for the District’s central office contains an array of program offices, many reporting to the Superintendent. What strikes me is that there is no apparent alignment of program offices, positions, or roles that are seen as in direct support of the buildings. The central office has come to be viewed as solely devoted to monitoring and measuring the data-side of school improvement, and not cognizant of the day-to-day challenges (and emergencies) faced by the students, teachers, and administrators in these buildings who are struggling with change and transformation on many levels.
One example of the role being defined for itself by central office and suggestive of the lack of direct support and mentoring would be the classroom “walk through” conducted by teams of central office staff and others. These are often unannounced, without apparent purpose, and superficial; and, ironically, disruptive to school routines. The feedback is not always timely, and for struggling Principals, the follow-up to the findings become one more thing to do on a long list of competing priorities.
Another unintended outcome of a central office that is attempting to discern its best design and role is that with too many people having access to building principals, there is a lot of “white noise” created by multiple demands that distracts the attention from the vital priorities of improved student learning and achievement.
It is my belief in light of these priorities that investments in support of the buildings must align with the differential needs of elementary and secondary students, teachers, and administrators. This runs the gamut of curriculum, instruction, school management, and student and family support systems. What works at the elementary level is not necessarily useful or acceptable to educators in secondary buildings, and vice versa. Coordination of the two “sides of the house” could be accomplished in many ways and will be an essential requirement for system-wide success.
Further, in light of the need for more investment in support of buildings, I believe that the role of Community Superintendent needs to be studied and a determination made as to the most effective role, relationship, and level of empowerment that will be assigned to these leaders.
Need to Rethink and Redesign Student Intake and Induction Processes
Unfortunately, with the focus of the JIT on persistently low performing schools it is possible to lose sight of the initial successes of Buffalo’s turn around, taking place in several heretofore low performing elementary schools under the leadership of Dr. James Williams and his team.
There are also schools that have been for many years’ beacons of success and stability: City Honors, Olmsted Science Magnet School, Hutchinson Technical, McKinley, and Performing Arts among them. The success of these schools is a source of pride for the parents of children fortunate to attend them, as well as the Board of Education and the teachers and administrators who contribute to their success. However, the existence of a handful of effective and successful schools in an otherwise troubled school district is a source of irony, created by a system that allows for school choice, for those who struggle in different circumstances, in the same district. No one wants the District to be labeled as supporting or encouraging schools for winners and losers.
The success of these particular schools should never be an issue if the District resolves to take steps to correct systemic problems with the processes used to assign students to all other buildings in the District, especially those at the secondary level. It is my understanding that all processing of new enrollees and their subsequent assignment to a school takes place centrally. The distribution of students must be based first upon their needs; but the mix of students, programs, and staffing within a building must also be factored into the decisions to ensure the most desired outcomes and cost effective use of resources.
Also of importance to Buffalo and any district that is particularly sensitive to the arcane processes of the State’s accountability system, sub-group assessment results as well as poor attendance, drop-outs, suspensions, and disruptive incidences all “label” a school building. But more importantly, cross-district transportation affects parental participation as well. In short, a school choice/lottery system or any approach that can be manipulated, does not serve students, schools, or a community.
There is also a growing population of students enrolling in the Buffalo Public Schools who are English Language Learners (ELL). Their needs are often idiosyncratic, and differ greatly from the majority of the school population. Their language acquisition and prior schooling experience are keys to success in school. It is becoming apparent that the District must address the readiness of these students for the “mainstream” both in terms of curriculum, instruction, student support services, and the school experience itself.
There would seem to be multiple approaches that could achieve this, individually or through a coordinated plan. The first is what could be called newcomer’s schools: places where the first school experience would be based upon diagnostic language immersion and cultural supports. A second approach would be the creation of year-long freshman academies in each high school. These would provide the orientation to a particular school’s expectations. It might also serve to solidify teachers’ readiness to embrace necessary changes that must be supported across an entire building, supported by both building and district administration.
Need to Identify and Develop Leadership
It is the responsibility of leadership to encourage and motivate others to follow a plan that is developed, implemented revised, and supported together. Leaders, even if they know the right outcome well in advance, must still clear the path and arrive at the destination along with those who follow them. This requires extraordinary leadership; individuals with heart, wisdom, confidence and humility.
Buffalo has these leaders, many in (elementary) buildings that have already worked their way up and off of various accountability lists. The District needs to develop as well as attract these types of people by the utilizing the great examples of leaders who are already in place within the District. They need to be given the opportunity, support, and empowerment to excel. Leaders don’t serve their organization’s long term interests by necessarily recruiting those who have a similar style to theirs; or, molding others in their own image. Rather, they must gather those who seek the work (and not the position) and have the courage to do what it takes to get the “job” done.
The District needs to create an induction anddevelopment program that is grounded in the new culture of the organization but formulated and shaped with help from experts outside the District to ensure a high quality and balanced development and support program for leaders.
Fundamental Need to Develop a Culture of Respect and Trust: Across the District within Each Building
This existence of deep divisions within the District among the adults, along with the countless of 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.
Developing the culture of the organization is as essential as creating its capacity. To ignore this reality victimizes not only on the combatants themselves but the people whose welfare everybody uses as a rallying cry: Buffalo’s children, the unpaid and unprotected victims.
No use of internal or external authority, no research, no transplanted program will be able to accomplish what the people in this District can and must accomplish for themselves, together and on behalf of each other. Everybody is responsible for the existence of these divisions and animosities and all are responsible for creating the new Buffalo Public Schools.
Donald A. Ogilvie
District Superintendent/CEO Erie 1 BOCES