Buffalo weighs return to neighborhood schools

Oct 20, 2011

 If you're a parent of a Buffalo Public School student, you're receiving a "robo-call" this week that could affect how millions of dollars are spent within the school system.  And some believe the answers parents give could give their children a leg-up on education that's been missing in Buffalo for decades.

  The issue is whether children should be bused to schools outside their neighborhoods, or if the system should be revamped to keep most children in their community schools.

  WBFO's Sharon Osorio has the story.

  “Busing has wreaked havoc on east side and minority communities in Buffalo.  There's no question the African-American community has been devastated by busing.”

  Sam Radford is the vice president of the District Parent Coordinating Council of Buffalo schools.  He's one of many African-American education advocates who say busing has driven African-American children in the wrong direction.  The controversial program was implemented in the 1970's to integrate black students with white students in Buffalo schools. 

  ”Here we are, almost 40 years later, and the majority of our children go all the way across town to school,” he says.  “You're looking at a community where in Buffalo only half of the citizenry has transportation.  The majority of those people who don't have transportation are poor and low-income people who live on the East Side of Buffalo, and those are the majority of people whose children are being bused.  So then we raise issues about why we have such low parent involvement in school, and there's just no way that you can be an active parent when your children are going all over the place to go to school.”

  In 1996, the desegregation order requiring busing was lifted.  Still, busing continues, and since 2003, it has been used as part of the district's Open Enrollment program to allow children to attend whichever school they choose.  According to the district's director of student placement, 54 percent of all students are placed in the first choice school.  Twenty percent of students receive their second choice.

  But Radford says the plan is not working.

  “Technically you should have choice.  That's what it is in theory, so if your child goes to a persistently low achieving school, you have the right to move your children to another school, but because so many schools are persistently low achieving schools, any other school you want to move your child to is another persistently low achieving school, and all the good schools - they'll tell you, 'Oh, we ain't got no room.'  So in essence you get sent to where room is at.  Where room is at?  Schools that are the failing schools.”

  Nathan Hare, the head of Community Action Organization of Erie County and a leader in the African American community, is also urging the district to return to neighborhood schools, with many of the specialty schools like City Honors remaining open.  Hare says he's been against busing from the start, and he wants the millions of dollars spent on transportation to go toward after-school programming. 

  “When you have neighborhood schools and you have kids able to go back and forth during their lunch period, and after school going back and forth to after-school programs at the schools, then what happens is 70-90% of the kids are going to be around caring, competent adults literally from seven in the morning until 7 o'clock at night virtually every day,” says Hare.

  But here's another catch that affects the current Open Enrollment system and the proposed Neighborhood School system.  To save money and respond to the declining population in the city, the district has closed some of the schools on the East Side.  So there are no community schools in some neighborhoods.  Radford has a solution for that, which could stir up another controversy.

  ”We know the union is going to have a fit about this, but it's the reality we're in, that we may talk about creating some smaller district-sponsored charter schools on the East Side,” says Radford.  “So we may be able to come up with solutions to where we can get neighborhood schools on the East Side of Buffalo even though the district doesn't have the buildings there.”

  Professor Henry Louis Taylor, the director of UB's Center for Urban Studies, also supports neighborhood schools.  Right now, only 25 percent of African American males graduate from high school in Buffalo.  Taylor believes it's a top priority to turn around student performance, keeping kids in school and out of trouble.  But Frank Mesiah, the president of the Buffalo Branch of the NAACP, says busing is not the problem.

  ”If a teacher doesn't have the resources and the training to teach what has to be taught, then you can have the kid either bused to Rochester every day and back, or walk to school,” he says.  “But if the school is not providing the resources to provide the education for the child, it doesn't matter if the child is bused or not bused.”

  And Buffalo Board of Education member Ralph Hernandez wants to make sure that the district does not strengthen segregation by making matters worse.

  ”The concern that I have is that we have to ensure that there's equity across the district,” Hernandez says.  “You can’t have some communities having all this stuff going on, and then other communities not having the resources to do the same, so we need to make sure that whatever configuration you put together, that the resources are spread out.”

  The district is also commissioning a transportation study by the former head of Buffalo Public Schools' transportation system.   But parents offering their views when they get the call survey call from the district ...will also make an impact on the decision.