Buffalo Seeks a Smooth Transition After Release From Court Oversight

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In a classroom of the Frederick Law Olmsted School one recent afternoon, a team of educators pored over a stack of applications for six-dozen coveted spots in the school's incoming kindergarten class.

As pioneers of a new admissions process for the school's gifted-and-talented magnet program, the five evaluators--three teachers, a counselor, and a central-office administrator--were clear about their mission. First they were to rate each applicant as either qualified or unqualified in six areas--ranging from IQ and achievement scores to a parental questionnaire on creativity--and then recommend whether the child should be admitted.

John Nowicki

What they were less clear on was whether race and ethnic background would enter into the admissions equation, and if so, how much it would count. Some team members were sure it would be a factor, especially if the incoming class would otherwise be short on African-Americans and Hispanics. Others were equally convinced that it would not be considered.

As it turns out, the lack of consensus was not surprising.

When district leaders here modified their admissions procedures for their magnet schools this spring in response to a lawsuit, the delicate question of precisely what role would be ascribed to race or ethnicity was deliberately left vague. At issue was whether the 47,000-student district would keep, scrap, or modify its system of reserving 60 percent of the seats in its schools for gifted children--City Honors School and Olmsted--for blacks and Hispanics.

"'Vague' is not the nicest word," district spokesman J. Andrew Maddigan said, "but it may achieve an end that's desirable. If the end justifies the accusation of having a vague policy, then so be it."

Not a 'Determining' Factor

The end Mr. Maddigan had in mind was a relatively smooth transition from life under a court order to a world in which questions of equity and diversity are left to local school leaders to decide. In 1996, a federal judge released the district from 22 years of judicial oversight that had set race-based numerical goals for everything from faculty hiring to student assignments.

In October, a 6th grader and her parents filed a lawsuit claiming that the girl had been turned down at City Honors solely because she was white. This spring, the district settled the case by enrolling the girl and agreeing "to eliminate the use of racial quotas." ("Buffalo Settles Case Challenging Racial Preferences," May 13, 1998.)

In the end, district leaders decided that race and ethnicity would continue to be factors in admissions at both schools, but not determining ones. The details were left undefined--hence the uncertainty of the evaluators at Olmsted.

The new interim policy emerged after months of wrangling among school leaders and parents. Among the issues: how to avoid backsliding toward segregation while satisfying community demands that admissions standards be based primarily on perceived merit.

One major point of contention concerned the use of IQ tests as entrance criteria for the Olmsted K-8 gifted program. A proposal by the central-office staff to drop the test for kindergartners was scrapped. But the school did get rid of IQ tests for grades 1-8.

Other changes to the admissions systems at both City Honors and Olmsted included eliminating computer-generated numerical rankings of applicants and introducing the more subjective evaluation teams.

An Eye on the Courts

A constant backdrop to the debate here has been the threat of lawsuits or civil rights complaints. Administrators worry, on one hand, that federal civil rights authorities might intervene if the new system hurts minorities. But they also know that aggrieved families could band together in a class action if the process proves too tilted toward blacks or Hispanics. Those groups now make up nearly two-thirds of enrollment districtwide.

To skeptics, the resulting policy has done little but ward off litigation. "The impression I get is they want to continue to use race, but they want to make it more difficult for a plaintiff to be successful," said Paul D. Weiss, a local lawyer who represented the family that sued last year.

But others see matters differently. "They left themselves enough room to make some judgments along the way," said Michael B. Henry, the president of an Olmsted parents' group that clashed with school officials during this year's admissions debate.

Under the resulting interim policy, district officials neither directed evaluators to consider race or ethnicity in weighing applicants nor instructed them not to, Mr. Maddigan said. The racial makeup of students recommended for admission by the evaluators remains to be seen. For that reason, administrators are unsure whether they will override those recommendations in the interest of preserving diversity.

At the Olmsted School, Principal John A. Nowicki said the preliminary review of kindergarten applications suggests that the incoming class is unlikely to deviate markedly from those in the recent past.

"We were afraid that it would be totally skewed," he said. "But the diversity seems pretty close to the guidelines set down in the court order."

As they await more definitive results, district leaders have made it clear that this year's admissions process is a trial run and that they will scrutinize the outcome for any needed adjustments.

"The trick is going to be to maintain the quality of the programs and their diversity without quotas," said Marlies A. Wesolowski, the president of the Buffalo school board. "Both of these things are important, but how do you get there?"

Vol. 17, Issue 39, Pages 10-12

Published in Print: June 10, 1998, as Buffalo Seeks a Smooth Transition After Release From Court Oversight
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