Community Commitment: “They Deserve Nothing Less” – Phil Rumore on Education in Buffalo

By Philip Rumore, President, Buffalo Teachers Federation

We should not focus on what we can do to improve the quality and availability of education in Buffalo. That is the slow path to nowhere.

While telling someone that you have lowered their temperature from 106˚ to 105.9˚ is an improvement, it hardly shows that you have cured the problem and that they are no longer in danger.

We must not only work immediately to identify the cause of and cure the fever but simultaneously take immediate action to ensure that that neither this person or others become affected.

For many years, you may have heard me say, “If you want to improve the success of our students you must make sure that they graduate from elementary school prepared for high school and graduate from high school prepared for a career. That means they must move from kindergarten to first grade ready for first grade, from first grade to second ready for second, etc.”

To achieve this, we need much smaller class sizes, more support teachers (reading, math, attendance and ENL teachers, social workers and school counselors), after school programs and yes, possibly mandatory summer programs. Whatever it takes, we must ensure that our students graduate from elementary school prepared for high school.

But of equal importance, we (that means city, county, and state agencies also) must work together from the students’ earliest age (i.e. Pre-K or earlier) with families that are in distress. If you can work with a family in distress in the early years of the students’ lives, you have a better chance to help. As the years pass, it becomes far more difficult to work with family problems that have then become ingrained in the family interrelationships.

Say Yes and community schools initiatives are making strides to provide services for families. County Executive Mark Poloncarz has opened lines of communication between the schools and the social service agencies; however, the agencies are too often overwhelmed with people in need.

We need to develop a model wherein each school has a contact person or persons in the Department of Social Services who can then access the services for the families.

This will obviously take increased recourses (funding). Perhaps we should start spending more money on social services than our jails.

The community schools initiative that has been embraced by the Buffalo Public Schools is also of significance. Schools are open later and on Saturdays for family support and activities.

Establishing community schools, while a step in the right direction, will do little unless we work to improve the community around them. That means developing a structure that includes the District council members, county legislators, state representatives, churches, block clubs, etc.

We need to end the isolated, sometimes self serving silos and institute a comprehensive and interrelated structure to work to not only improve the community around the community schools but all communities.

Ultimately, we need once-a-month meetings of the decision makers to put a master plan together in which they and other sub-groups meet regularly to assess the progress of our students and families and to take such actions that are required to work with and support our students and their families.

And we need public progress reports from said committees.

When I say we must ensure that our students graduate from elementary school prepared for high school the interrelationships between successfully moving from grade to grade and working with families are inextricably woven together.

You might say “Phil, that’s obvious.” Yes it is; however, all that we see are “raising” standards, and over testing students with unvalidated, pressure cooker tests. It’s like taking a perfectly healthy person and giving them blood tests until they die.

The tests now inflicted on our students have not been validated to show that there is any correlation between the test as an assessment of such critical skills such as creativity and critical thinking. Indeed most have been found to be age inappropriate.

The tests are so poor that they cannot (not that any standardized test should) be used to evaluate teachers until 2019 at the earliest.

As you know, thousands of parents have refused to subject their children to these mind numbing tests.

Indeed, the great amount of time wasted preparing for the tests is time that should be spent teaching and learning.

We need a master plan and the resources to sustain the plan – yes, resources.

Some say, “Oh, but you have millions being spent now.” Yes; however, most of our students live in poverty, most of our students know of a family member, friend or neighbor who was murdered, some of our students can’t go out and play in their neighborhoods for fear of drug dealers or violence, we have over 50 languages spoken in our schools … Yet, we can find money for wars, tax breaks for the wealthy, multimillion dollar salaries, etc.

The high schools are just as critical. We need to ensure that while educating our students for success in college, we are also providing resources for students who want to be carpenters, electricians, mechanics, etc.

All of the above is obvious. What is also obvious is that there is no commitment, resources, and no comprehensive plan with a definite timeline to achieve these goals.  There is just lip service, finger pointing, and excuses.

The current Superintendent has addressed some of these issues but not all of them.

He, with his “Educational Bargain” has begun to lower class sizes in the early grades and implement the community schools initiative in five schools.

He has not, due to the lack of funding, begun to significantly lower class sizes and provide support services our students need, e.g. school councilors, school social workers, reading teachers, English as a new language teachers, etc.

Our political “leaders” say they care about the education of our kids. Who do they think they are kidding? No one.

As for the question, “Why does it matter what we do?” If they are or were your children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews, hopefully you know the answer to that question.

Parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, all know that each child is different and that there is no one answer; however, there are answers for each child.

Each parent must accept the responsibility of being a parent and not be afraid or hesitate to be the adult.

We as teachers cannot do it alone. We need you and the entire community to work with us to ensure that each child will thank us for helping them become the caring, successful and happy person they are.

They deserve nothing less.

Philip Rumore has been president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation since his first election in 1981. Before that, he served 13 years as a Buffalo Public School teacher.

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