Buffalo schools struggle to catch up
Most students attending Buffalo public schools had fallen behind academically before the pandemic struck. Only a quarter of elementary and middle school students received proficient scores on their state standardized tests for reading, writing and math.
The learning gap got worse when instruction went remote in March 2020 and continued through most of last school year, when only one-third of students attended class regularly.
Yet, the district only held back 546 of its 29,918 students for the school year that started in September. Most of them were high schoolers. Only 43 pupils in the elementary grades were held back. Most notable: Only one of 2,219 second graders was held back.
District officials pledged to help students catch up by providing additional instruction and support. But little of that has been provided, according to teachers, administrators and parents interviewed for this story.
Most of the district’s plan has been stymied by a myriad of problems, including staffing shortages, continued low attendance and a lack of transportation needed to conduct after-school programs.
The result: Students continue to fall behind.
“The method that they said they were going to use to catch children up they can’t fully implement,” said Samuel Radford, parent and co-chair of We the Parents, a local group of education advocates.
“Our children who are already the furthest behind … they’re falling further behind.”
District officials, including Superintendent Kriner Cash and School Board President Louis Petrucci, refused to answer questions from Investigative Post for this story. The district also refused to release data requested this summer on the number of students held back a grade until last month. The district relented only after Investigative Post informed officials it was only days away from filing a lawsuit seeking release of the data under the state Freedom of Information Law.
Investigative Post spoke with 14 administrators, teachers, parents and education experts about the district’s efforts to address learning gaps in students. Some wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from the district.
Administrators and teachers told Investigative Post that many students are anywhere from half a year to a full year behind.
Educators said a failure to help students catch up will have long-term consequences.
“If we’re not preparing our children to be a part of the workforce that the future needs, we will have more of the same, if not worse,” said Dia Bryant, executive director of Education Trust New York, a statewide education policy and advocacy organization. “Where is the economic mobility? Where is the upward trajectory for these families? That’s what this is about.”
Identifying the learning gaps is growing increasingly difficult. Cash is sending subtle messages to discourage parents from having their children take the standardized tests, a primary way teachers assess student learning.
“I’m concerned that the leader of the school district is calling on folks to not test,” Bryant said. “Testing is incredibly important. It is a civil rights issue.”
Buffalo students struggled to meet benchmarks for standardized testing even before the pandemic began. Standardized tests showed that about three-quarters of Buffalo students weren’t able to read, write and perform math at grade level in the 2018-19 school year, the last full year before the pandemic.
Students testing at proficient levels
Results from state standardized tests taken in 2018-19 school year.
Source: State Department of Education.
Buffalo schools switched to remote learning in March 2020 and didn’t resume in-classroom teaching until this past spring. Student attendance, which was substandard prior to the pandemic, got worse when students didn’t have to physically show up for school.
Only 34 percent of students had satisfactory attendance rates during remote learning. Severe absenteeism — when students miss at least one day of school each week — doubled to 34 percent. Teachers said those numbers were more likely worse because students only needed to log in to their homeroom in the morning to be counted as present for the entire day.
- September 2020 to March 2021,, the period of remote learning.
Source: Buffalo Board of Education.
Many teachers felt they weren’t prepared to teach online. They hadn’t taught that way before and some said the district didn’t do enough to help train them. Another problem: outdated technology and unreliable internet access.
“I feel like I’m putting in a lot of extra work,” one teacher said last school year. “I see why a lot of teachers are getting frustrated and are leaving the profession.”
Then, as the district was about to phase in classroom instruction in March, a ransomware attack hindered operations enough to delay the reopening. Some teachers lost decades of instructional materials.
“I can’t tell you the man-hours it will take to recreate these documents,” an administrator said. “It takes us away from the kids.”
Technology troubles didn’t stop there. The district began this school year with a laptop shortage, leaving many students unprepared for classes. Fewer than half of the 15,000 laptops issued to students the previous school year were returned and serviced to be ready for classes. As of mid-November, more than 1,000 devices still hadn’t been returned.
Students advanced a grade
The district faced a dilemma: Most students, whose academic performance lagged prior to the pandemic, had fallen yet further behind due to poor attendance and the shortcomings of remote learning.
The district’s response: Promote almost all students on to the next grade.
Throughout the elementary and middle schools, only 62 students were held back. About half were kindergarten or first-grade students. In the high schools, that number was 484, mostly ninth and twelfth-grade students.
Students held back a grade
|Grade||Promoted||Held back||% held back|
Source: Buffalo Board of Education.
The district attempted to hide these numbers from the public.
Investigative Post submitted a Freedom of Information request last July seeking data on how many students were being held back. The district said that data would not be available until the conclusion of summer school in August. The district still hadn’t released the data a month later.
Lisa Keane, the district’s Freedom of Information officer, said in an email:
“I reached out to the respective department. They said that Dr. Cash has this FOIL and they are waiting for his approval to send it out.”
Investigative Post submitted an appeal. The district, in a violation of state law, ignored the appeal, effectively denying the request. Attorneys for Investigative Post then began to draft a lawsuit seeking release of the records, and only when the district learned it was about to get sued did officials provide the records.
The plan and what went wrong
Remediation is the typical way districts help struggling students catch up on their academics, but Buffalo opted for another approach. It’s called accelerated learning and involves various methods of teaching that can speed up the learning process. Both classroom instruction and extended learning time through supplemental programs are used to address learning gaps.
Educators interviewed for this story told Investigative Post accelerated learning hasn’t gained sufficient traction in Buffalo schools, however. Several problems have thwarted success.
A shortage of bus drivers prompted the consolidation of routes, resulting in earlier pickup times, later drop-off times and missed homerooms for many students.
“It’s not academically supportive, and it’s not safe,” said Wendy Mistretta, parent of one Buffalo school student and president of the District Parent Coordinating Council, a parent group. “I mean, it’s dark by five o’clock now. It’s getting cold.”
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The transportation department isn’t the only one suffering. At a press conference in mid-December, Cash warned staffing shortages could get worse.
“It may get more acute. Our food service workers and custodial staff. Our teaching staff. I’m having to hire more and more substitutes but there isn’t the population of substitutes to help us,” he said. “I’m running into staffing shortages across the board.”
While many schools in other districts are experiencing similar issues with staffing and transportation, the problems are more challenging in Buffalo because of its size.
“Your wealthier districts operate a little less complex than your bigger, urban, more under-resourced districts like Buffalo,” said Bryant of Education Trust New York. “The infrastructure that’s necessary to run Buffalo is different than a suburban district with five schools.”
Challenges in the classroom
Teachers are dealing with more COVID-19 cases, mental health needs, technology issues, suspensions and absences. It’s made coming back to class bittersweet.
“I like being in the classroom with my kids because I feel like I’m accomplishing more,” one teacher said. “But I also feel like there’s some sort of a disconnect on their work ethic.”
“I think they’ve gotten used to the idea that ‘We’re just going to pass,’ ” she said.
Another teacher added, “The kids are a lot more actively engaged. And I definitely do see an increase in their grades over last year.
“We have a lot of kids who are really trying to make up some credits. They didn’t get much done last year.”
Not all fell behind at the same pace.
“In the elementary buildings, you’re seeing very, very large gaps than in any other place,” said Rachel Lis, a first-grade teacher at Roosevelt Elementary and a member of the Buffalo Teacher Federation’s executive committee.
To help fill those gaps, the district is allowing teachers to modify their curriculum.
“I am going down to the kindergarten and pre-K curriculum for some things,” Lis said. “You really couldn’t do that before.”
Teachers are adjusting their lessons based on where their students are at academically. Some, Lis said, are further behind than others. That often means she’s teaching different lessons to different groups of students in the same classroom.
“I might be working with five kids, which really is leaving 14 kids working independently. But they’re really kids, they can’t work independently,” Lis said. “So it’s like my attention is not going to the five kids that need it.”
Staff shortages means extra help isn’t always available either.
“We’re doing it, but it’s not the best setup,” Lis said.
Delays in launching programs
Individual high schools didn’t start to offer after-school programming, including tutoring and remediation, until early December. Elementary after-school programs aren’t expected to start until the spring due to ongoing transportation issues.
“Extended Learning Time is really important, especially when we’re trying to catch kids up, and there just hasn’t been opportunities for that,” said Jessica Bauer-Walker, parent of two and executive director of Community Health Worker Network of Buffalo. “I’ve been having a hard time finding extra supports to get [my daughter] where she needs to be.”
Much of the remedial support the district offers is web-based. Students are encouraged by teachers and administrators to use instructional applications focused on improving math and literacy skills on their school iPads and laptops.
What scarce in-person remediation is being offered is through partnerships the district has with organizations including Say Yes to Education, YMCA Buffalo Niagara and the Belle Center. They all offer programs on the weekends.
Say Yes, a nonprofit that provides academic and family support services, reopened its programs that offer academic support and enrichment activities for children and their families. The programming aims to improve grades and attendance rates, reduce suspensions and promote parent and community engagement. Academics are a main draw.
The programs operate out of the district’s 22 community schools on a rotating basis. Attendance for the 2019-20 academic year was nearing 32,000 before schools shut down in March 2020. Attendance is down since reopening, said Tanya Staples, senior director of Community Schools for Say Yes.
“We want to see more people,” she said.
The loss of learning, if not corrected, has long-term consequences.
“It’s going to have a huge impact. I think that particularly in the elementary grades we’re gonna see the residual effect of this for many years to come,” said Radford, the parent leader.
Bryant, with Education Trust, said the effects will be seen now in students heading to college or the workforce. They’ll also be seen later, in those children just starting school now.
“Imagine that a child was four when the pandemic happened, just starting to get some phonemic awareness, just starting to get bite-sized pieces of reading,” Bryant said. “And here we are two years later. They’re probably in first, headed into second grade. And we have no idea.”
Continued cancellation and low participation in New York’s standardized tests has left many schools without a usual benchmark of student achievement.
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Cash expressed his reservations with the tests in a Board of Education work session in December, after being pressed by board members about what assessment data for grades 3-8 would be used as the baseline to set goals for student improvement. He criticized standardized testing as designed to benefit white, wealthy students.
“These tests have never been designed for you to really hit the top mark on it. As soon as you get close — and we got close in districts that I’ve led before — they change the test,” he said. “Because it doesn’t fit the narrative for everyone to be doing well, especially for minority children.”
Cash then played two videos from the organization NYC Opt Out, which encourages parents to have their children skip taking standardized tests.
“It appears that he is actually encouraging parents to opt out of the test,” Radford said. “For him to say, ‘I want less data,’ I want one less data point, makes no sense.
“And to me, it hurts our children.”
In Buffalo, only 18 percent of grade 3-8 students participated in last year’s standardized English and math tests. That was the third-lowest participation rate in Erie and Niagara counties.
Bryant said Buffalo schools need to use standardized tests to determine where students stand academically. The data is needed to set policy that addresses learning gaps.
“The district is trying to drive this from a 30,000-foot level without concrete data,” she said. “You can’t. It’s almost impossible to do.”
The School Board is scheduled to take up the issue of how federal funding will be used to help students catch up in a work session Wednesday night.