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District wants ideas to improve diversity in Buffalo's criteria schools

Mike Desmond

As Buffalo Public Schools near the start of the long process for admission to the city's criteria school next year, the district is asking city residents to come up with ideas for improving racial and ethnic diversity in the schools.

There have been years of struggle over having the criteria schools' student bodies be more reflective of the heavily minority city student body. Major changes were made for this year's new admissions at City Honors - the most visible of the criteria schools - and there was little change.

Schools Chief of Intergovernmental Affairs Will Keresztes said it is not just an issue of getting more minority students into the criteria schools next September when test scores show there is a lack of students for these schools.

"It's a great example of  how a school district needs to do two things at once: We need to take steps to dramatically close the achievement gap that exists in our district, but, at the same time, we can't be comfortable with any school that might have severe disproportionality in enrollment," Keresztes said. "So we have to address both at the same time."

Keresztes said the New Education Bargain is changing the playing field by opening a series of new programs in high schools to attract students and parents and offering new choices.

"What we want to do, and what Dr. Cash has been really focused on, is creating a whole variety of great schools for parents to pick from in which their children will be successful," Keresztes said. "So today we're really just focused on trying to get ideas from the community on this particular issue, but we hope parents will consider all of the great schools that we have in our district because there really are some exciting options for students."

Keresztes said the attraction of Say Yes and its free college plan is helping persuade students get better grades, meaning a better chance to attend a better school. However, few citizens showed up for the first of the three public meetings to offer advice.

One was Nikita Fortune. She said there needs to be a hard look at feeder schools, the elementary schools whose students eventually wind up in high schools.

"There's a well-known process of one particular elementary school feeding into a middle school and two particular high schools," Fortune said, "and I can't believe that the disparity is that great once you get into high school. The diversity is there in the lower grades. What is the problem that it's not there in the higher grades."

Jay Tillotson said the problem with the current system of admissions to the criteria schools is that it is so opaque.

"You don't know if it's fair - and I think the process when you take a test like this, everyone should know what is your rank," Tillotson said. "And everybody should know that for your kid, what number are you? There's only a certain amount that are admitted and you know like if I'm in the top 50, I'm getting in."

Andrew said the diversity question is the wrong question.

"Buffalo schools want to talk about promotion of more multi-culturalism. My point of view is stop multi-culturalism," Andrew said. "Either we need to be Americans collectively, together, or if we continue to keep categorizing ourselves as Americans, we're going to continue down this downhill slope and create more friction between each of us. We're either Americans or we're not."

The next public meeting on the diversity issue is Thursday afternoon at 4 p.m. in the Merriweather Library Meeting Room.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.