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Published in Print: November 4, 2015, as Buffalo Struggles to Respond to Feds Over Access to Best Schools

Buffalo Struggles to Respond to Feds Over Access to Best Schools

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The federal government is demanding more answers from school officials here about how they plan to resolve allegations of discriminatory admissions practices at their better schools.

Among the questions: Why not create a City Honors II school, as recommended by a national consultant?

The Buffalo district's answer: Reinventing some two dozen failing schools serving thousands of kids is more urgent than duplicating the district's best school to serve a relatively small proportion of students. Besides, they say, City Honors isn't even among the schools most in demand.

Critics, however, aren't buying it as Superintendent Kriner Cash prepares a formal response to the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights.

"There's a need to do it, it's a great school, and there are many more people that want to go there that can't be accommodated," said Gary Orfield, the civil rights expert hired by the district to make recommendations to resolve the civil rights complaint. Creating a second City Honors School was one of Orfield's key recommendations. "That's a no-brainer to me," said Samuel L. Radford III, the president of the district's parent coordinating council, which filed the civil rights complaint. "Why wouldn't we increase capacity where people are making demands?"

But while calling the push to duplicate the school "well-intentioned," the district hints that there is no guarantee a second City Honors would be more diverse, and that replicating it "pales in comparison to the exigent urgency of reinventing schools."

"That reinvention is the district's top civil rights obligation and eclipses the impulse to create another nationally ranked school on the theory that sufficient numbers of underrepresented students will automatically fill its ranks," the draft response says.

School Demographics

The magnet school for grades 5 through 12 has an enrollment of 1,030 students. That's up from 812 since 2010. More than a third come from homes below the poverty line, according to Principal William Kresse.

Known for its rigorous International Baccalaureate program that stresses higher standards and critical thinking, City Honors had a graduation rate of 98 percent in 2014. It was recently named the top high school in the Northeast by The Washington Post and has regularly made U.S. News & World Report's list of the best schools in the United States.

Is City Honors doing something other schools aren't? Or is its success based on taking in the brightest kids in the city?

"We take in a skilled and motivated group from all over the city which would perform well regardless of the school they attend," Kresse said. "But what we do when they come to us is we say, 'You've got these skills. We're going to force you to build upon them through mandatory graduation requirements.' "

The problem is that the office for civil rights found that white students who applied to City Honors were disproportionately granted admission compared to minority students. Of the 159 students admitted to the school in the 2013-14 school year, 64 percent were white.

The consensus was that while City Honors couldn't be expanded, it could be duplicated, said Orfield, who heads the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles. It's a matter of putting the pieces together that already exist, he said, and hiring a principal and teachers prepared to take on a demanding curriculum.

"There's no need why a city like Buffalo should have such a scarcity of really high-quality college-preparatory schools," Orfield said.

District's Plans

District officials have been hesitant to publicly comment on the issue of a City Honors II, but the draft report obtained by The Buffalo News detailed its stance. The district:

• Is not planning a replica of City Honors currently, but will review the feasibility for the 2017-18 school year;

• Raises the idea that opening a City Honors II could hinder progress toward equity;

• Contends that other schools are in higher demand than City Honors.

Kresse said the school is "not a fit for everyone. Not every family is saying, 'Hey, I really love exactly what you set up over there.' "

But he is happy to share what works at City Honors—a mandatory accelerated program, the International Baccalaureate, and a progressive instructional style.

There also are lessons to be learned from other city magnet programs, he said.

Cash declined to comment about the district's intentions for a City Honors II, but released a statement saying: "We are in the process of designing and working through plans that do not involve creating replicas of existing schools. Rather, we are creating schools that position our students for success in a globally competitive marketplace and are equally or more attractive to students and parents than any existing school."

One area where there seems to be agreement is the need to do much more to increase the number of minority students enrolled at City Honors and other criteria-based schools. The district plans to hire an outreach coordinator to make that happen.

Related Blog

At City Honors, minority enrollment has increased about 10 percent over the past decade through its own outreach to encourage more minority students to take the admissions test, Kresse said. This year, he said, the school was 61 percent white, compared to 64 percent two years ago. The district as a whole is about 21 percent white.

"Are we where we need to be yet?" Kresse said. "No, we're not."

The district's response to the office for civil rights—its second attempt to answer the civil rights complaint—was due Oct. 30.

Vol. 35, Issue 11, Page 6

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