Buffalo School District must move on after John Hopkins' last-minute departure from school-transformation program


A year ago, optimism abounded in Buffalo as the city’s School Board approved a much-sought partnership with Johns Hopkins University. The prestigious institution seemed like a lifeline for two of the district’s most underperforming high schools, East High School and Lafayette High School.

But now those hopes have been deflated.

It’s deeply disheartening that Johns Hopkins is giving up on these schools and abandoning students to whom it committed to helping just a year ago.

Johns Hopkins’ Talent Development Secondary is backing out, giving up on two schools that proved to pose too great of a challenge. The excitement generated by the original deal, which took more than two years to establish and cost over $2 million in state grants, is lost now, as is $1 million in federal money the district would have received to support the university’s school-transformation organization.

The two schools host primarily impoverished students, refugees and immigrants who don’t speak English. Last year, 86 percent of East’s student population was living in poverty, and almost half of Lafayette’s students spoke limited English. The loss of Johns Hopkins’ involvement poses another challenge for students and faculty who already face far too many obstacles.

John Hopkins has left these schools at the last moment, putting the pressure on the School Board to somehow generate a refined plan, find a new program and obtain the necessary funding – a task that seems borderline impossible.

But the alternative is equally intolerable, without assistance, it seems all but inevitable that these struggling schools will backslide. If you consider the state of East and Lafayette prior to Johns Hopkins’ involvement, regression must be avoided at all costs – even if that cost is in the range of millions of dollars.

Even though leaders of the Johns Hopkins program explained they were overwhelmed by the state of the two schools, they managed to make a significant difference. Although Lafayette High School is still plagued by a meager graduation rate of less than 30 percent, at East High School the percentage of graduates rose from 27 percent in 2012 to 48 percent in 2013, a number that was expected to continue to rise this year.

So despite the failure of this program, the school district must try again. These schools need additional help, and it’s critical the School Board is not deterred from trying again, and starting the search for outside resources all over again. It needs to pick itself up and survey its options.

And fortunately, possibilities do exist.

The Buffalo News identified New York City’s International Network for Public Schools as a potential contender, as the organization has already worked with multiple international schools.

The School Board learned an important lesson, one it needs to take to heart as it selects a new source of assistance for Lafayette and East. Even though Johns Hopkins’ program looked impressive, boasting 15 years of experience in turning around struggling schools, it clearly wasn’t up to the task. “Fifteen years of experience” sounds promising, but the organization lacked expertise in non-English speakers and had never worked as a lead administrator prior to its role in Buffalo.

This time around, members of the School Board cannot allow themselves to be so easily seduced by a prestigious name and an extensive – but ultimately irrelevant – resume. Instead, it must swallow its pride and move on, staking its bets and the futures of the students it serves, on a more thoroughly vetted organization – one that won’t back out when the going gets tough.

email: editorial@ubspectrum.com