Speakers want more autonomy for city schools

A longer school day. More freedom for schools to make their own decisions. Redefining success through alternative paths to graduation.

Those were among the issues panelists discussed at a happy hour event Wednesday sponsored by Investigative Post.

Asked what one thing they would change about the city’s schools, all three speakers  mentioned more autonomy for schools in how they hire, budget and use testing standards.

Strong centralization might have been necessary in the past to create accountability, said William Kresse, principal of City Honors School.

“Now it’s on us: let us do the work,” he said.

David Rust, executive director of Say Yes to Education Buffalo, agreed, and added that large, comprehensive high schools are failing while schools with more structured offerings are working better.

Eve Shippens, a 7th and 8th grade science teacher at Martin Luther King Multicultural Institute who worked on the school’s redesign plan, added that budget choices at individual schools are severely limited.

Kresse argued that more flexibility in hiring teachers would also serve schools better. As a principle, he explained, “you’re under a lot of pressure to make the engine run: you want to be able to build your engine, not just have it handed to you.”

Another point of consensus was the need for a longer school day.

“The traditional school day has got us where we are now; we need more if we want better outcomes,” said Rust.

Shippens agreed, but added schools need to be careful that a longer day doesn’t simply mean more time spent preparing students for standardized tests.

“The last thing you want after eight hours of test prep is two more hours of test prep,” she said.

Shippens also said that focus on Common Core testing standards is distorting educational priorities. Students in low-performing schools have uninterrupted blocks of English and math at the expense of gym, art, science and even sometimes recess.

“There’s too much pressure on kids to perform, and that will decrease their motivation over time,” she said.

If standardized tests don’t define success, what does?

For Rust, the focus is on improving graduation and college matriculation rates. The early results from Say Yes are impressive, he said. After only two years, there has been an 8 percent increase in both graduation and college matriculation rates.

While Rust described going to college or getting a post-secondary degree as “the only sure path to the middle class,” Shippens said it’s important for schools to think beyond academic talent when it comes to defining success.

“There are other talents besides being college-ready that we need to promote,” she said, and a need for “alternative pathways to graduation” through art, music, and vocational subjects.

Kresse challenged the perception that magnet schools like his contribute to the district’s woes by “siphoning off” the most able students.

“The education system is trying to deal with segregation it didn’t create,” he said.

One way of doing that would be creating more programs that appeal to the large swathe of city parents who have become disenchanted with the school system.

Shippens, who has worked at some of the city’s consistently under-performing and “out of time” schools, said there has been a “failure to stop schools being segregated by race and income.”

All too often in struggling schools, she said, teachers have to buy their own classroom supplies and use out-of-date textbooks.

“The union has not promoted the part of the contract that protects children,” she said.
Investigative Post Editor Jim Heaney moderated the discussion, held at the Flying Bison Brewery.

The happy hour was the final installment of “At Issue,” an event series hosted by Investigative Post. Sponsors include Bernhardi & Lukasik, the M&T Charitable Foundation; Talking Leaves Books; Schroeder, Braxton & Vogt; WGRZ; and Artvoice.

The new event season will kick off with a concert July 22 featuring Tom Toles and the Outlyers. Tickets will go on sale soon for the show at Sportsmen’s Tavern.