Parents file civil rights action to repair access to City Honors
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.