Q&A: Sam Radford, parent leader

Samual Radford is president of District Parent Coordinating Council, which has emerged the past several years as the most organized and vocal advocate of reforming Buffalo public schools.

After a stint in the Marines, Radford, 45, became an activist and organizer on a number of fronts, including president of the student government at Erie Community College, a trainer with the Martin Luther King Institute for Nonviolence, and head of a youth detention center for at-risk kids and a homeless shelter for young women. He’s currently a program coordinator for the Community Action Organization of Erie County.

The District Parent Coordinating Council organized a one-day boycott of schools last May and is discussing the possibility of organizing the parents of students at low-performing schools to not enroll their children at those schools in this fall. Radford, meanwhile, has clashed with Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation.

Radford was interviewed via e-mail last week by Investigative Post Editor Jim Heaney.

The flashpoint issue at the moment is whether a teacher’s evaluation should include the academic performance of students with poor attendance. The BTF has said “no.” Why should a teacher be held accountable for students not in the classroom?

That is a mischaracterization of the issue. The current evaluation system does not factor any student’s growth whether they are in class or not.  The change is going from not being evaluated to being evaluated.  Teachers should be evaluated on student growth or lack of student growth of all students.  A student should not be discounted because they have missed more than 20 percent of class (2 out of 10 days).

The real truth is that in the four high schools where this is an issue, the  teacher absentee rate is over 15 percent and there is direct relationship between teacher absence and student absence.  The overall culture of absence needs to be addressed; in the meantime a teacher should be evaluated on some scale for every student they teach.

Unless the converse is true, if a student does not have a subject area certified teacher at least 80 percent of the time, they should not be evaluated. Uncertified substitutes who don’t know the curriculum or subject area should not count. In my mind that sounds ridiculous, just like the idea that you shouldn’t count a child because they missed 2 out of 10 days.

State Ed has said that without an agreement, they’re going to withdraw millions in aid. Do you have any ideas on a workable compromise?

Most school districts in the state have found a workable solution, I would start there.  I think having a weighted evaluation based on attendance would work, as well.  I believe students who don’t have a regular teacher should be given the same weighted consideration on their assessment scores.

You’ve been very critical of the quality of education offered by the school district. What are the key problems?

What you call “critical” is an objective assessment.  By any standard, an education system that has a 50 percent success rate can’t be called “quality.” This system has been devastating for the black, Hispanic and immigrant populations that have a 75 percent dropout rate.  Think about the impact on a black community that has had 40 years of 75 percent dropout rates.

The main problem is that we all know that the system is broken, but because it employs so many people who don’t have their own children in the broken system or even in the same community or city where they work, we are willing to continue with the system as is.

The next problem is the system is designed to not give city residents the same checks and balances as the suburban systems that actually work. City residents don’t get to vote on or see their school budget; consequently most of us don’t realize that we spend almost $1 billion every year on this broken system with virtually no accountability. The Board of Education can negotiate ridiculous contracts with unions and we all have to pay, whether we agree or not. The ability to vote down a budget would force fairer negotiations and more transparency.

The two-tier system is a major problem.  We take all our brightest students and put them in criteria-based schools (City Honors, Hutch Tech, Da Vinci, McKinley, Olmsted, etc.), so most of the A&B average middle school students go to those high schools, leaving the lowest-performing students all together in the same academic environment, which is a recipe for failure.  A Buffalo administrator said last year that we are creating persistently low achieving (PLA) schools by how we do placement.  No suburban or successful school district is structured this way.

The next problem is the lack of a comprehensive vocational education program for Buffalo Public Schools and the inability for Buffalo students to participate in BOCES programs located in the suburbs.  Ironically, Buffalo had one of the best vocational education programs at one time.

To what degree are parents or the students themselves responsible for poor achievement? I mean, there are plenty of students who show up for school and study hard who appear to be succeeding.

In the end, parents have to take the ultimate responsibility. They are our children, and our community lives with  the consequences of the poor education our children are getting.

The people who work in the system still get paid whether our children succeed or not.  The communities most of district employees live in are safe and have good school systems.  So even if they share in the blame for our children’s low achievement, they don’t share in the consequences.

The “plenty of students” you are talking about is about 50 percent.  They succeed in spite of a poorly designed system.  Most of them are the ones that go to the upper-tier schools, where quality education is happening.

We already know that a quarter of Buffalo schools are what is described as “dropout factories,” or persistently low achieving schools. It’s been that way for years, so if parents, teachers or students were the ones designing and operating this system, they should bear the responsibility.  Since they are not, I would say those responsible for designing and operating the system should have the professional integrity to fix what is broken.

What are your impressions of interim Superintendent Amber Dixon?

She is a very good communicator. She listens.  That is half the battle of leadership. She has been open to parent input and suggestions. She has been responsive to some of our concerns. I enjoy working with her.

Play teacher for a moment. What grades would you give the following: 

Grades have to be given in context, using a rubric.  All of us have an overall grade of “ F” by objective measurement against our mission.  The mission is HIGH ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT FOR ALL. On the mission we are all failing miserably. However, if I am relatively measuring growth and effort under the current system and circumstances, I would give these grades:

Board of Education:  C

Central office and school administrators: C

Classroom teachers: B+

BTF:  D

Parents: C +

Students:  A-

State Department of Education: C

Governor: A. He has injected some needed leadership into the discussion.

Mayor Byron Brown has not involved himself much in the schools. Should he be playing more of a leadership role?

He has gotten involved, and when he has been, he was helpful.  He was the one who really created a table of stakeholders that first included the parents. I would like to see the mayor have more of a role in the education system.  In a system redesign, the mayor should be given say in Buffalo Schools by board appointment or mayoral control of some sort.

Tell me a little about the District Parent Coordinating Council. How many schools is it active in? How many active members do you have?

There are 56 schools that make up DPCC and there are 40 active schools. All Buffalo parents are considered members of the DPCC.  We average between 100 to 200 members per meeting.

The mission of the DPCC is to ensure that a partnership exists between parents and the Board of Education in the implementation of their mission of putting children and families first to ensure high academic achievement for all. The secondary mission is to monitor the implementation of the board’s parent involvement policy.

You’ve talked about a possible student boycott next fall. What would trigger that? Where would the students enroll? Surely you’re not talking about them staying out of school altogether, are you?

What we are really talking about is stopping the INSANITY.  When it is all said and done, if we as parents send our children to a failing school, that we know is failing and nothing is being done about it, we get what we deserve (failing children).  So in an effort to not support a broken system, we are searching for solutions.

Boycotts ended the unjust system of segregation of buses in Montgomery; strikes got a fair contract for teachers.  In both cases people stopped participating in what was unjust in order to change the status quo.  We have to consider all options for the sake of our children.

We may consider just the opposite; we may occupy schools with people who actually live in the neighborhoods where the schools are. Our main focus is to employ a strategy that changes the status quo. It works for everyone but our children.

Our primary strategy will be prayer and hard work.  We are looking for the help and support of God almighty and all people of good will who believe that every human being has the right to a quality education.

You seem like a natural for political office. Is that in your future?

No chance.  I am in no way interested in running for any legislative office.  I may at sometime consider being on the school board if I thought that could help our efforts as parents. As for right now, that is not the case, so I will dedicate myself to working on behalf of parents as a DPCC officer.

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