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Chameleon Schools Project

I read with interest the report by George Sax on the public meeting held by the Chameleon Community Schools Project (Artvoice v11n29, “The Week in Review”). Chameleon has pursued their idea of converting two schools in Buffalo, East High and the Waterfront School to charters under their management.

One minor point, Mr. Sax states that “All of the city’s existing charter schools were created from the ground-up, from scratch.” This is not correct. One charter was created by conversion of an existing city school, the Westminster Community Charter, with support from the partnership with M&T Bank. The conversion was supported by the Board of Education. Enterprise charter was also created with support from the then Board of Education, and both are considered district charter schools.

Mr. Sax accurately describes many the concerns that many have regarding Chameleon’s proposal. I would like to add two points to the discussion.

As an active participant in educational work at East HIgh, I am mystified by the Chameleon proposal. I serve as director of the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Partnership (ISEP) with the Buffalo Public Schools (, which is supported by major federal, university and state funding (ca. $10M/5 years). ISEP involves a collaboration of the Buffalo Public Schools at 12 schools (including East High) with significant higher education/research (UB, Buffalo State, the WNY Service Learning Coalition, Roswell Park Cancer Institute, Hauptman Woodwared Institute), corporate (Praxair, Life Technologies, VWR Science Kit, Lab Aids) and community (Buffalo Museum of Science, Buffalo District Parent Coordinating Council) partners. Besides the ISEP support, the principal and teacher leadership at East High has engaged a significant group of community and higher education partners for in school and after school activities to support the students and teachers. They also have coordinated discussions to expand collaboration among the partners.

As one of many education and social service support partners dealing with students at East High, I note that Chameleon has made no effort to contact us to understand or assess our efforts within East’s educational activities. Further, leadership at East High has been effective and vigorous in describing a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) focus in the turnaround plan for the school. I wonder how the Chameleon plan will engage the ongoing work without an understanding of what is presently underway.

Secondly, I sincerely hope that any consideration of new charters or conversion to charter school management will examine the poor record of support for students with disabilities by most charter schools, and require a plan to address support for special needs students. In recent studies by Ms. Madeline Morcelle and myself at UB, we documented the track record of service to children with special needs in charter schools serving Buffalo Schools students over the past several years. Reflecting the national problem that charter schools under-serve students with disabilities as reported by NPR and other major media outlets, charter schools serving Buffalo schools students register significantly fewer students with disabilities; reflecting New York State’s poorly conceived Charter school legislation in many ways. It is important to note that approximately 20 percent of students in Buffalo Schools receive services with an Individualized Education Program, under the federal IDEA act, and are considered special education students. Only two of the 15 charters serving Buffalo students (Maritime and Oracle) register similar percentage of students with disabilities among their students, and individual and overall data show significantly lower numbers and percentages of students with disabilities among the other 13 charter schools, especially those students needing significant educational support through their IEP.

How Chameleon’s plan would address this significant shortfall of service is a necessary component of any consideration of their plans. One of Chameleon’s founders, Steven Polowitz, has been vocal in numerous public meetings regarding charter schools as a general solution to the City School’s needs. He has been silent on the issue of charter schools’ separate and collective under-service to students with disabilities.

As in all school “reform” efforts underway in our community, we need a full and substantially transparent discussion of the pros and cons of various proposals. If the Chameleon proposal is rushed through the community, we will not have a chance to fully vet the merits of these ideas. Due diligence should be required, and that would mean research on the current programs in the schools that are working.

> Joe Gardella

Gardella is the John and Frances Larkin Professor of Chemistry at UB, and director of ISEP. He served for nine years as chair of the Buffalo Schools Special Education Parent Advisory Committee (SEPAC) and currently chairs the board of directors of Parent Network of WNY, which serves parents of special needs children in WNY.

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