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New charter school proposed for city’s West Side

A new charter school for students in kindergarten through fifth grade is being proposed for Buffalo's West Side. In this Focus on Education report, WBFO's Eileen Buckley learned exclusively about plans to open the SMART Academy. 

"Not every parent has the opportunity to get their kids in the higher performing schools -- and it's a shame," said Amy Brackenridge, Buffalo School parent and is Chief Information Officer for the proposed SMART Academy. 

SMART Academy logo for proposed school.

Brackenridge and other stakeholders applying for the charter school sat down with WBFO.  Brackeenridge said with some students unable to attend criterion-based city schools there need to be more options for city parents and students stuck at failing schools.

"We want to make sure everybody has that opportunity and they have the just option to go out and find what it is that they want for their children, but a place where their children can thrive and be successful," said Brackenridge.

About 2,000 have requested to be transferred out of failing schools.  Some business stakeholders are behind this proposed charter school to potentially offer parents a new school choice.    

"In the larger picture -- one has to look at working around the edges of large urban districts and the charter movement does do that," said Frank Herstek, lead applicant for this charter.  He is a consultant with the Western New York Educational Service Council and Pearson Education.

"Why do you want to do this," asked Buckley.  "I guess my answer, like most answers that folks look at in terms of setting up a charter school, is too look at the emerging needs of a city on the move and quite frankly we know that a number of things that have happened in the Buffalo Public Schools that are good, positive things, however, looking at a large system, like Buffalo, it takes so much time to change a large city like that," responded Herstek.

One of the sites being considered for location of the proposed school is 100-Forest Avenue in the former Westwood Squibb Pharmaceuticals building.

Credit WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley
Fred Saia & Frank Herstek (seated) with Amy Brackenridge (center) and other members of the proposed charter school.

"We're going to open up 528-kids. Our goal is to have 798 kids," said Fred Saia, board chair of  SMART Academy.  He's founder and president of Oneida Concrete which has been in Buffalo for 40-years.  Saia  is also the founder of one of the most successful charter schools in the region. -- the Charter School for Applied Technology. 

Saia wants Buffalo Schools to succeed and be attractive to families as the region continues its economic boom. But Saia doesn't want to wait for the city to turnaround its failing schools, instead he wants this new school to be part of the solution. 

"Part of the problem with public schools are -- they're a big system and can't change quickly," noted Saia.

A letter of intent for the SMART Academy was already accepted.  The charter school application was  completed earlier this week to meet an August 18th deadline.  If approved, Saia said one of the school's focus would be reading.

"Years ago it was a given that you would get a pretty good grammar school education and high school would be a game-changer for many kids.  It's changed, unfortunately, that we've got to get to these children sooner and at a younger age," said Saia. 

Brackenridge added the curriculum would include STEM.

"The other thing we know is that not every child is going to really achieve and thrive in an environment that is strictly  STEM and reading.  Kids really have fabulous potential in the arts, s o we want to make sure that everybody is being developed as a well-rounded individual, including the arts, so that's where the 'A' comes in in SMART, science, math, arts, reading and technology," said  

A West Side charter school could also provide a new opportunity for the growing immigrant and refugee population.  Many are struggling with the language at city schools.  Saia notes dealing with English Language Learners -- would automatically be built-in to the school plan from day-one.

"There's a whole Burmese and Vietnamese and Hispanic and Native American  population on the lower West Side that we feel is begin a little underserved. We are hoping to become a neighborhood school," said Saia.   

Saia has reached out to the Buffalo School Board president for support. He claims James Sampson is behind the charter movement and the proposed school. Sampson did not respond to a request to be interview for this story.  However, interim Buffalo Schools Superintendent Don Ogilvie offer his thoughts on a possible West Side charter.

"I wouldn't be directly involved in it, of course, but I don't view it as anything but an opportunity for young people and families and at the same time, through School 45, Lafayette -- all of the schools on the West Side -- we will do our part to make those welcoming environments and sustainable environments for our new neighbors," said Ogilvie.

But Ogilvie said it is important to keep in mind much of the financial support for the charters requires spending from the Buffalo District that is financially challenged.  However, as an educator, Ogilvie committed to what he calls the 'parental prerogative'.

"Charter schools have a distinct advantage in the sense that they can start over. they can design what they do, they can forward. To the extend that that makes us stronger -- as an educator, and as a parent and grandparent, you can not deny that opportunity," said Ogilvie.
Still some city charter schools have failed with low-test scores.  Community Charter lost its fight to stay open, but Herstek  isn't worried in this quest to start a new charter school.

"I think we are experiencing growth pains like any other movement across the country.  You are going to have highly successful charters and you going to have, quite frankly, some that don't meet the standard," said Herstek.

The state Education Department's s Charter School Office reviews all charter applications and makes recommendations to the Board of Regents for approval or denial.  The decision for the SMART Academy is expected in November.  That would give leaders about 10-months to secure a site and open in September of 2015.   Those involved in the proposed school say the Smart Academy would work to capture the needs of pockets of children in Buffalo.