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Calling a Time-Out on Buffalo Public Schools

James Williams = voice of reason?

Samuel Radford III and his colleagues in the Buffalo school system’s District Parent Coordinating Council had what was possibly the biggest moment in the group’s history Tuesday night. Radford, the council’s vice president, presided over a probably unprecedented three-and-one-half hour public meeting that was attended by perhaps 400 community residents and a number of educational and political leaders. He vigorously stage-managed the proceedings for most of that time.

Some of those community leaders arrived at the auditorium of the Buffalo Academy of the Visual and Performing Arts evidently not knowing the roles Radford and the council had in mind for them. Buffalo Common Council members David Rivera and Michael LoCurto, when queried just prior to the meeting’s start, said they were there to listen to their constituents’ concerns. Moments later, Radford directed them both to a table onstage where they sat with other elected officials, each of whom was eventually summoned to the mic to answer what Radford defined as the overriding question facing all “the stakeholders” in the Buffalo school system: Are there structural problems in that system or in Albany that produce the large proportions of students who fail and don’t graduate each year? When Radford thought they weren’t answering the question squarely, he pushed them to do so.

He was a sort of a combination of master of ceremonies, interlocutor, and Sunday preacher, and he mostly succeeded in controlling the tenor of the forum. At its conclusion, in what seemed something of a foregone conclusion, the council representatives voted to hold a previously threatened half-day student boycott on May 16.

Interestingly, Radford met some of the most effective resistance from Superintendent James A. Williams. There was more than one level of irony in this, since Williams bore some apparent if unintentional responsibility for the meeting’s tone and thrust. Radford and the parents council had picked up on comments the superintendent had made in a February TV Channel 7 interview in which he complained that the state’s educational directives, mandates, and incentives worked to doom a large number of Buffalo students to fail. The minutes of the parent council’s April 5 meeting reflect its officers’ attention to those remarks, and the letter from council president Co-Leen Webb inviting community leaders to Tuesday’s forum cited “structural issues in New York State” as an important cause of “children’s persistent failure.” (Only 50-60 percent of Buffalo high school students graduate, and only 25 percent of black males.)

If Williams inadvertently gave the council and others a device with which to challenge local educational leadership, he met that challenge Tuesday with a skill that may have surprised many of the attendees, particularly since he has recently been under a siege of complaints and public skepticism about his stewardship. Board president Ralph Hernandez this week told the Buffalo News’ Mary Pasciak that Williams was too often unresponsive to board inquiries, and was “responsible for the lion’s share” of the district’s failures. State Assembly members Sam Hoyt and Crystal Peoples-Stokes recently announced plans to introduce bills that would allow a 51 percent majority of parents at any school to turn it into a charter school, require voter approval of district budgets (denied the state’s five biggest cities), and Hoyt said he was investigating what it would take for the state to assume control of Buffalo’s schools. Both expressed a lack of confidence in Williams.

Williams has often been perceived as uncommunicative, arrogant, and testy, but Tuesday evening he struck a posture of firm patience and candor. He was carefully informative as he gave a brief tutorial on the system’s 13 state-identified persistently low-achieving schools, the state and federal requirements for Buffalo’s response, and the federal Race to the Top money (up to $70 million) available to fix those schools if the district complies with those requirements. He gave a respectable analysis of the social context of student learning problems, calling Radford and the audience’s attention to the cultural and linguistic deprivation of poor and minority students as they begin their school careers. “Some of them don’t even know their real names,” Williams exclaimed. “‘Bubba’ isn’t a name.”

“You can’t just blame the dropout rate on structure,” he told the meeting. “I’ve been to 19 funerals for students.” He also dared to challenge family failure: “You can’t blame anyone but parents if kindergartners don’t come to school.” He also pumped for both a longer school day and year and for revived vocational educational opportunities, both of which would require state action, he reminded listeners. (Western New York State regent Robert Bennett was dismissive of Williams’ claims about state control during a brief comment, and Radford largely let him off the hook.)

If Williams acquitted himself better than some expected, fending Radford off long enough to make his points, some other participants tended more toward flattering the audience and offering inflated generalities.

Peoples-Stokes’ proposed parent-initiated charter-school conversion bill is unlikely to ever receive legislative or gubernatorial approval and probably shouldn’t, according to a number of observers. She repeated her call for it Tuesday, to the loud agreement of the assembled, but the legal, policy, and ethical objections were never discussed. Common Council member Bonnie Russell seemed at one point to be objecting to child-abuse laws when she said, “Once we could discipline children, now you go to jail!” Radford and others also sometimes gave the impression that they were playing off the Buffalo Teachers Federation and its membership as obstructionist relics that must be pushed aside. He referred to the necessity of bringing together “all the stakeholders,” but there was a kind of looming absence at the forum: the BTF. The union wasn’t invited, Radford told Artvoice in a prior interview, because it wasn’t one of the “stakeholders” that could address the much-discussed structural problems. School board member Chris Jacobs went so far as to remark with unmistakable sarcasm that despite a lot of popular reform impulses, “We have to honor the contract.” (He complained that this contract prohibited uncertified athletic coaches or sports teachers who lack seniority, no matter how talented.)

It’s difficult to understand how teachers can be branded as both obstructionists and irrelevant to this kind of discussion. To their credit, LoCurto and board member Pamela Cahill referenced the difficulties teachers face, including rigid state standards, and paid tribute to the skill and dedication of the district’s teachers.

At the end, Radford elicited Mayor Byron Brown’s agreement to convene another meeting this month, a lock-them-in-a-room-until-they-come-up-with-solutions gathering. On his way out, Brown told Artvoice that he would “absolutely” invite teachers federation reps because they were indeed “stakeholders.”

george sax

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