by Dr. Mark Naison
A bold effort to engage inner city Buffalo public school students in rebuilding and redesigning their own communities, is undermined by “reform” educational policies “which reduce students to test scores and graduation rates.” Their high school is doomed to change principals every three years and periodically shed half its teachers because of low scores that are absolutely predictable. “After magnet schools and charter schools picked their students, those who were left went to schools like East HS.”
A Buffalo Story: How Mindless Application of Federal and State School Turnaround Mandates Undermine Effective Community Organizing
by Dr. Mark Naison
This article previously appeared in WithABrooklynAccent.
“The students had become agents of neighborhood change.”
During mid October, I had the privilege of spending two days getting an in-depth exposure to one of the most radical experiments in democratic urban transformation in the nation – a Choice Neighborhoods initiative in the East Side of Buffalo created by SUNY Buffalo’s Center for Urban Studies in partnership with Buffalo’s Municipal Housing Authority and Erie County’s community action agency. The brainchild of the Center for Urban Studies visionary leader, Dr. Henry Taylor, the initiative seeks to engage residents in some of Buffalo’s poorest neighborhood in redesigning and transforming public housing projects, business districts, schools, and vacant properties in the target area. Improving schools is one of the key objectives of the initiative; but it seeks to do that not by insulating school children from the forces surrounding them and educating them to escape the neighborhood, but by engaging them in a democratic community planning process along with their teachers, their parents and their neighbors and by making a problem centered pedagogy part of the school curriculum. Even before the Choice Grant, the Center had gotten students in one of the schools involved in the initiative – Futures Academy – involved in transforming a rubble strewn lot across the street from the school into a beautiful park and vegetable garden and another smaller lot nearby into a bird park. The students had also done remarkable arts work for the initiative, both in public spaces, and the school. They had become agents of neighborhood change.
“Each principal was forced out solely because of poor student performance on standardized tests.”
What the students had accomplished was nothing short of miraculous, but unfortunately, such accomplishments did not register on the metrics mandated for low performing schools by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top and mechanically applied by the State Education Department in Albany. As a result, Futures Academy, whose school population was drawn from students who could not get into or were pushed out of charter schools and magnet schools, went through three different principals in the ten years the Center had worked in it, each one forced out solely because of poor student performance on standardized tests. Student participation on democratic neighborhood transformation could not save those principals; they were judged solely on test performance and Futures Academy, for school administrators, became a revolving door.
While Professor Taylor and his colleagues realize they cannot change educational policies being shaped in Washington and Albany, it is sad to see how these policies place handicaps on what they are trying to accomplish. In a neighborhood where over 90 percent of the residents are black, most are poor, half of the land sits vacant, public transportation is inadequate, and abandoned stores and factories dot local business districts, the public schools are one of the few remaining neighborhood anchors. They are not only the largest remaining buildings in the East Side neighborhood, they contain space and resources – auditoriums, gymnasiums, class rooms computer labs – which could be vital assets to all neighborhood residents as they participate in the planning, as well underutilized cultural capital in the form of student creativity. Professor Taylor’s goal, through in school and after school programs is to enlist public school students in every part of the neighborhood redevelopment initiative, from having them involved in public art projects, neighborhood beautification initiatives and urban agriculture, to having them help redesign local business districts, to having them imagine new neighborhood institutions which enhance public safety and democratic participation. But to have students play this role effectively, the project needs on stability and continuity in the administration of the three public schools included in the initiative – Futures Academy and ML King School, both K-8 schools, and East High School. And unfortunately state and federal mandates are making that difficult to impossible.
“The first day he entered the school, he realized he would be out in three years because he could never raise graduation rates to meet national and state mandates.”
Let us take East High School, the one secondary school in the planning zone. Although East has had a rich history serving Buffalo’s Black community, producing many famous and accomplished graduates, in recent years, as the East Side neighborhood has undergone disinvestment, depopulation and decay, it has become a school of “last choice” in the Buffalo school district and a revolving door for principals. Now, a brilliant new principal has been brought in who specializes in “turning around” tough schools and who is an enthusiastic partner in Professor Taylor’s initiative. But as he told me when we met, the first day he entered the school, he realized he would be out in three years because he could never raise graduation rates to meet national and state mandates. Why? Because of the 160 students in his freshman class, 157 were “1’s” ( on state reading and math tests), 2 were “2’s, and 1 was a “3”! Essentially, ONE student in his freshmen class tested above grade level, 157 below!!
How did this happen? Basically because after magnet schools and charter schools picked their students, those who were left went to schools like East HS. Not only did these students test poorly, they disproportionately came from troubled families that moved from house to house with great frequency and occasionally disappeared. Given this population, it was going to be virtually impossible to meet the graduation rate targets established by the state and the school would have to be placed in receivership once again with the principal removed, and up to 50 percent of the teachers replaced!
“The goal was to tap the full range of East High students’ talents in a process of community renewal and to encourage them to see East Buffalo as a place to be re-imagined and rebuilt.”
Given this tragic and absurd outcome, why did the principal take the job and why did Dr. Taylor choose to make East High School one of the anchors of his community development initiative. The answer is simple. Because both saw East students as more than the sum total of their scores on standardized tests, and the problems they experienced in their homes and places of residence. They saw them as citizens in the making possessed of invaluable knowledge about their neighborhood and a deep reservoir of cultural capital not only in artistic and musical talent, but in resilience, endurance and ability to overcome great obstacles. They wanted to incorporate them in the neighborhood planning process, get their frank assessment of what needed to be preserved and what needed to be retained, and involve them in hands on tasks ranging from cleaning up the local business district, to organizing talent shows and oral history projects to highlight the community’s past strengths and future potential. In the process, their test scores might go up, and attendance might improve. But that was not the major goal. The goal was to tap the full range of East High students’ talents in a process of community renewal and to encourage them to see East Buffalo as a place to be re-imagined and rebuilt, not as human toxic waste site that all people with skill and talent seek to escape.
This kind of idealism and faith in the human potential of students and neighborhoods is at the very heart of what Democratic Education should be about. Unfortunately, it is being undermined, in the name of equity, by federal and state policies which reduce students to test scores and graduation rates.
Dr. Taylor, the Principal of East High School, the principal of the other two schools in the East Buffalo Choice neighborhood initiative will persevere no matter what, but wouldn’t it be better if state and federal authorities relaxed automatic school closing triggers and allowed schools the flexibility to become true centers of community empowerment?
We can only hope that at some point, sanity will prevail in the US Department of Education and the New York State Board of Regents. Hopefully, that moment will come sooner, rather than later.
Mark Naison is a professor of African-American Studies and History and Fordham University, in New York City. Contact him through his web site, WIthABrooklynAccent.