Par­ents file civil rights ac­tion to re­pair ac­cess to City Hon­ors

The Buffalo News - - FRONT PAGE - By Jay Rey

The par­ent group that filed a civil rights com­plaint to force Buf­falo Pub­lic Schools to pro­vide black and His­panic stu­dents more ac­cess to its top schools is again ask­ing the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to in­ter­vene over con­cerns the prob­lem has only got­ten worse.

The District Par­ent Co­or­di­nat­ing Coun­cil has sent a let­ter to the U.S. De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion’s Of­fice of Civil Rights about the district’s “on­go­ing and will­ful re­fusal” to rem­edy the com­plaint it filed six years ago.

While that com­plaint did re­sult in the school district mak­ing a num­ber of changes to ad­mis­sions prac­tices at the city’s cri­te­ri­abased schools – specif­i­cally City Hon­ors – those ef­forts were largely “su­per­fi­cial, done in bad faith and have re­sulted in greater lim­i­ta­tions to equal ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties for racial mi­nor­ity stu­dents,” the let­ter states. The par­ent group pointed to the data:

In a district where roughly two-thirds of the stu­dents are ei­ther black or His­panic, African-Amer­i­cans ac­counted for 20 per­cent

of the en­roll­ment at City Hon­ors when the com­plaint was first filed in the fall of 2013, ac­cord­ing to district fig­ures.

This year, 16 per­cent of stu­dents at City Hon­ors are AfricanAmer­i­can, fig­ures show.

“City Hon­ors was cre­ated as a so­lu­tion to the seg­re­gated school sys­tem in Buf­falo,” said Sa­muel L. Rad­ford III, pres­i­dent of the District Par­ent Co­or­di­nat­ing Coun­cil, “but it went from be­ing a so­lu­tion to the big­gest ex­am­ple of the prob­lem.”

The par­ent group be­lieves fix­ing the prob­lem re­quires the watch­ful eye of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment and asked the U.S. De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion to take im­me­di­ate steps to force the city school district to com­ply.

The let­ter even goes as far as com­par­ing the sit­u­a­tion in Buf­falo of 2019 to Lit­tle Rock, Ark., of 1957, when the fed­eral gov­ern­ment had to step in to force school in­te­gra­tion.

“This let­ter de­scribes an apoca­lypse that isn’t Buf­falo,” said Will Keresztes, who has guided the changes in ad­mis­sions as the district’s chief of in­ter­gov­ern­men­tal af­fairs, plan­ning and com­mu­nity en­gage­ment.

In fact, he said, the mon­i­tor­ing of the district by the Of­fice of Civil Rights con­cluded last fall, but the school sys­tem has con­tin­ued to seek its sup­port in cre­at­ing more ac­cess and op­por­tu­nity for stu­dents of color.

“We re­ally feel we’re just get­ting started,” Keresztes said. “We know what we’re do­ing is putting us on the right path.”

This re­cent let­ter, which doesn’t di­rectly men­tion City Hon­ors, was sent to the Of­fice of Civil Rights by Pa­tri­cia El­liot­tPat­ton, who was among the par­ents who filed the orig­i­nal com­plaint.

She serves as a vice pres­i­dent of the par­ent group and is a can­di­date for the Board of Ed­u­ca­tion in the May elec­tion.

That orig­i­nal com­plaint led to noted civil rights scholar Gary Or­field com­ing to Buf­falo to make rec­om­men­da­tions to ad­dress the racial dis­par­i­ties, pri­mar­ily at City Hon­ors.

The school district ul­ti­mately ac­cepted 15 of his 24 rec­om­men­da­tions, while nine oth­ers were mod­i­fied be­cause ad­min­is­tra­tors thought they were nei­ther work­able nor af­ford­able.

But the group be­lieves the rec­om­men­da­tions by Or­field, co-di­rec­tor of the Civil Rights Project at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Los An­ge­les, need to be taken as a whole to be ef­fec­tive.

The heart of the dis­agree­ment is still over some of the more con­tro­ver­sial rec­om­men­da­tions that were never im­ple­mented. They in­clude cre­at­ing a sec­ond City Hon­ors and elim­i­nat­ing the neigh­bor­hood pref­er­ence to at­tend Olm­sted 64, known for its gifted and tal­ented pro­gram.

The group wants to bring back Or­field to over­see ef­forts by the school district.

Rad­ford and other mem­bers of the group re­cently met with Su­per­in­ten­dent Kriner Cash and staff to voice con­cerns.

Rad­ford said they made it clear par­ents don’t have the ex­per­tise to ad­dress what has be­come a com­plex civil rights is­sue for elite schools around the United States.

“But we don’t be­lieve they are ex­perts ei­ther,” Rad­ford said of school district ad­min­is­tra­tors. “We don’t want to con­tinue to rely on them to solve a prob­lem that is be­yond their purview.”

The district, in fact, has reached back out to Or­field and asked him to re-eval­u­ate a cou­ple of his rec­om­men­da­tions – such as a City Hon­ors II – in light of more re­cent district de­vel­op­ments, like the open­ing or re­boot of sev­eral city high schools.

While district of­fi­cials haven’t dis­missed the idea of a sec­ond City Hon­ors, they’re also not con­vinced it will fix the prob­lem – only ex­ac­er­bate it.

“Dr. Or­field is a cham­pion for Buf­falo and a key ally for us,” Keresztes said. “We agree on so much and dis­agree on so lit­tle. But no one can show us num­bers that demon­strate how a sec­ond City Hon­ors would im­pact di­ver­sity at the first.”

Rad­ford, mean­while, said there’s not enough ur­gency to fix this prob­lem and is con­cerned about com­mu­nity pres­sure from par­ents who don’t want the district to rock the boat at what’s widely con­sid­ered the top pub­lic school in the city – if not the re­gion.

“We’re fight­ing an up­hill bat­tle,” Rad­ford said.

That’s why the District Par­ent Co­or­di­nat­ing Coun­cil is ap­ply­ing a lit­tle pres­sure of its own. It asked the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to freeze fed­eral poverty funds awarded to Buf­falo un­til sub­stan­tial steps are made on this civil rights front.

Rad­ford is hope­ful there’s some le­gal stand­ing given the pre­vi­ous com­plaint.

City Hon­ors, lo­cated on East North Street, en­rolls more than 1,000 stu­dents in grades 5 through 12.

Here’s what district fig­ures show:

• The pro­por­tion of black stu­dents at City Hon­ors shrunk to 16 per­cent this year, down from 20 per­cent dur­ing the 2013-14 school year when the par­ent group filed its civil rights com­plaint about the dis­pro­por­tion­ately low num­ber of mi­nori­ties.

• Whites make up 57 per­cent of the school’s en­roll­ment, even though they ac­count for 22 per­cent of stu­dents in grades 5 to 12 dis­trictwide. How­ever, the per­cent­age is also smaller than six years ago, as the school has seen growth in the num­bers who iden­tify them­selves as Asian.

• His­panic stu­dents, mean­while, make up roughly 9 per­cent of the stu­dents at City Hon­ors, which is a slight im­prove­ment from six years ago. Still, the pro­por­tion of His­pan­ics en­rolled in grades 5 through 12 across the district is nearly dou­ble what it is at City Hon­ors.

Keresztes said the school district is ex­plor­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of an ad­mis­sions path­way to City Hon­ors through a sis­ter school, like Stan­ley Makowski Early Child­hood Cen­ter, where roughly two-thirds of the stu­dents are African-Amer­i­can.

Makowski is also around the cor­ner on Jef­fer­son Av­enue and, like City Hon­ors, of­fers a chal­leng­ing in­ter­na­tional bac­calau­re­ate pro­gram but for the pri­mary years.

The district, Keresztes said, is also search­ing for proven poli­cies to in­crease the num­ber of qual­i­fied black and His­panic stu­dents at City Hon­ors based on merit – not based on set­ting aside seats.

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