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State Regents denies COMMUNITY Charter School renewal

WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley

The New York State Board of Regents has voted not to renew COMMUNITY Charter School in Buffalo.  The charter school's Board of Trustees and its leadership say they are reacting with "bitter disappointment".  But the local charter school is fighting to remain open. WBFO's Eileen Buckley visited COMMUNITY Charter for a first hand look at how it serves students in grades K-8 in the city's Kensington neighborhood.

Students dressed in navy blue shirts and khaki skirts and pants would light up with excitement as Denise Luka walked into their classroom.

Credit WBFO News photos by Eileen Buckley
Denise Luka heads COMMUNITY Charter School in Buffalo

The well l-behaved students and their teachers were eager to tell their school leader what they accomplished.  In one of the classrooms, students bragged about their reading list.

Credit WBFO News photos by Eileen Buckley
Reading list

Kindergartners showed off their  paper mache earths and in music class. it was a quick drum concert.

Credit WBFO News photos by Eileen Buckley
Students play bongo drums

“This is absolutely devastating news for our school and our community. We will work with and provide support to our students and their parents/families, and our teachers and staff to help them deal with this difficult situation," said Luka, head of COMMUNITY.

Luka joined COMMUNITY Charter just last fall.  She has had the difficult task of trying to improve a big drop in student performance.  

Luka has been working on a turnaround plan since she arrived, but now the Regents is ready to pull the plug.

"But I believe they had complete blinders on when they were here, and that their minds were already made up, and did not really recognized  the efforts or the turnaround plan  that we had implemented or stated to implement. We were in the infancy stages of implementation," said Luka.

Luka and other school leaders says the Regents decision is devastating.

"All through this entire school year, up to this point, we invited them to come back, most cases we have been unsuccessful," said Luka.

The Regents said the school was charting poor and declining scores in math and English and showing a dramatic drop in student performance. It also cited leadership trouble under the former school head.

Board of Trustees president Daniel Ricigliano blames the past leader for the school's decline. But Luka is certain she can fix it given more time.

"There were  many findings, and when I came on board in September, I took each and every one of those findings very seriously, and addressed each of the to ensure we were in compliance with what the expectations were for the state," said Luka.

The school's Website still boosts in the 2007-2008, academic year, 100-percent of its third graders were above the state standards in math.  But that has drastically slipped over the past five years. 

The State Education Department Charter School Office issued a report saying past performance at Community Charter on the state ELA and Math tests were among the lowest in the state and Buffalo.

Credit WBFO News photos by Eileen Buckley
Pat Pitts, project manager with the Center for Educational Innovation & Denise Luka. CEI has been working closely with the school.

"I feel that the school is unfairly judge. they have made some tremendous progress," said Pat Pitts, project manager with the Center for Educational Innovation. 

CEI has been working closely with the school the last three years.

"They are the recipient, or one of the recipients of the Teacher Incentive Fund grant," said Pitts. "We have worked with them in terms of professional development, and worked with them in developing a performance based compensation plan, which is the centerpiece of the grant. Since Mrs. Luka has come on board that effort has intensified...There has been, from what we are seeing, tremendous progress made."

Pitts is encouraging the Regents reviews achievement data  -- under current school leadership and the results from assessment testing underway this week.  She says that should provided a chart of slow and steady progress. 

"So I would hope they would take that into consideration and give them a chance to continue as a strive to be a school of excellence," said Pitts.  

The Regents has warned COMMUNITY to make improvements with internal accountability and improving instruction. 

Luka has been focused on delivering those changes since September.

"That the instruction lacked data-driven decision making,   collaboration among faculty, maximize instructional time...basically accountability, not just for the faculty and staff, but across the board," said Luka. "Internally accountability, so that everyone is being held to a standard and an expectation and that there is an accountability attached to that." 

School leadership believes the state is turning its back on students who live and learn in a depressed inner-city neighborhood on the city's East Side. 

Credit WBFO News photos by Eileen Buckley
Bulletin board at school

Luka is most concerned for the students future.

"There's the uncertainly of where they are going to go, which is very frightening to me.  Buffalo Public Schools will basically be their option.  many of the schools that are in good standing are full...so I'm fearful of where my children are going to end up next year. 

COMMUNITY Charter School opened in 2002-- and currently  serves close to 300-inner-city students.             

Physical education teacher Mark Collins has been there for nine years.  He was waiting  for his next class in the school gym and reflected on the Regents decision to close the school. 

Credit WBFO News photos by Eileen Buckley
Physical education teacher Mark Collins greets students

"It's pretty disappointing, and I feel mostly for the students and where they are going to be placed.  I think we have a great place here now, and we have a great administration. Years past has been a little bit turmoil in there, but I think it has changed for the better, and we are we are looking forward to the future, and unfortunately it sounds like we are not going to be able to make it to the future," said Collins.  

The Board of Trustees will be exploring all options including possible legal action to fight the decision to keep it open beyond 2013. 

Credit WBFO News photos by Eileen Buckley
Inside school hallway

Luka and the school wants the Regents to reconsider and at the least grant a three-year renewal.