Superintendent James Williams is determined to turn around his struggling district—whatever it takes. You may want to get out of his way.
James Williams is settling in to his role as the leader of Buffalo (NY) Public Schools.
A blizzard is raging in Buffalo. It’s James Williams’s first major storm since he took office here as chief of schools nine months ago, but he is undaunted as he heads out on his typical Thursday-morning school visits. With rubber shoe protectors fitted securely over his leather dress shoes, he charges down school sidewalks unbothered by the icy streets and freezing temperatures.
Williams’s imitation of a snowplow defines his leadership style. After stints in Dayton (OH) Public Schools (from which he was fired after eight years when the district’s deficit reached $22 million) and three years in Montgomery County (MD) Public Schools, Williams has resolved to turn around Buffalo’s miserable test scores and 60 percent graduation rate. He says he will stay in Buffalo until he has fixed the district. When asked what a fixed district would look like, Williams says simply that it would look a lot better than Buffalo does now. And when asked how he will do it, he says he will rely on his determination, motivation, and passion. For a struggling district like Buffalo, critics claim it would take much more than that. Spend a day with Williams, and you want to become a believer anyway.
FIRST STEP: CHANGE THE CULTURE
At Buffalo Elementary School of Technology, students and staff are celebrating Dr. Seuss’s birthday. Williams arrives to read Green Eggs and Ham to a fourth-grade class. Although the local news crew is here, providing an ideal photo op, that’s not the source of Williams’s energy—these weekly school visits are the highlights of his job. Thirty-seven years ago at the recommendation of a friend, Williams quit his job in a post office in Washington, D.C., and began to substitute teach. Williams loves the classroom. He leans forward in a rocking chair and reads to the students in his booming voice, asking them to finish each rhyme in unison. As they do, he repeatedly tells them how smart they are. Afterward, he asks students what they want to be when they grow up and offers advice to the young boy who says he doesn’t know.
When Williams later climbs into the backseat of his sedan to return to the district offices, he asks, “Did you see me in that classroom? That was my first time in that classroom. And what did those students do? They embraced me, because I could relate to them.”
Not all students hug their school leaders—or each other, for that matter. In recent months, Buffalo has faced intensified outbreaks of fighting among students that have led to suspensions and even injuries and arrests. Williams accuses the media of hyping the idea of violence in schools. “There’s been fighting in schools ever since we’ve had schools,” he says. “All of a sudden we put a new name on it: violence!”
Williams attributes the rise in reports partly to cell phones. “It’s a cell phone society. If a child hiccups, [community members] call the police,” Williams says. “I don’t need the police to come in and help me run my schools.” An exception is made, of course, when Williams is the one to put in the call. “If I say I need them, they better get here.”
To quell the outbreaks is to change the culture, not to resort solely to disciplinary measures, says Williams. “It’s not, ‘Hey boy, hey girl, come here and sit down. Shut up,’” Williams says. “You don’t respond to that, and I don’t respond to that. Why would you think children would respond to that? You have to talk to them.”
For this, he enlists the community for help. The district’s Memorandum for Understanding allows community groups and social-service agencies to provide services not offered by the district on school premises. The district also communicates with Mayor Byron Brown and representatives from the judiciary, including Family Court and City Court, about opportunities for students with disciplinary problems.
In addition, Buffalo is in the process of creating an alternative school for students who struggle in a traditional classroom setting—despite concern that lumping those students together in one building will put them at a disadvantage. Williams addresses the apprehension by explaining that all of the students enrolled in an alternative school are not necessarily problem kids. “They’re kids who cannot adjust to our [traditional] structure,” he says, arguing that in some ways, it’s a problem of semantics, that “alternative” has erroneously become synonymous with “problematic.”
Williams reads to fourth graders at Buffalo Elementary School of Technology (top) and distributes donated books to students at Highgate Heights Elementary.
EDUCATE KIDS, AT ANY COST
Buffalo Public Schools is struggling financially as well. In the past five years, 1,000 jobs have been eliminated, most of them teaching positions. Enrollment has dropped from 45,000 to 36,700 as families move from the Buffalo area. Two schools have been closed.
“We have to fix the financial flaws in our budget, or we’re not going to see progress,” Williams says. The district has recently established a foundation to collect grants and private funding and allocate the subsidies district-wide.
Another proposed way to save is to move district employees from a health-care package with a single provider rather than multiple carriers. Williams insists the move will save the district about $13 million.
The transition happened in September but is currently in arbitration, fronted by Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation. According to Rumore, the unions agreed to discuss the idea to move to a single provider, but Williams pushed it through before negotiations were complete. “We wanted to work with the district under a goodwill agreement, but then they shoved it down our throats,” says Rumore.
Williams accuses Rumore of holding students hostage, but Rumore says that Williams is doing the same with teachers. It’s not the first time the two have gone head-to-head. Other issues include longer school days, increased teacher-to-student ratios, and implementing the Reading First program. Rumore alleges that Williams has even called him a liar and threatened to “kick my ass.”
“I agree with many of the things he wants to do. He’s smart and very charming,” says Rumore. “But I think he wants to do too many things at once—and they’re too confrontational.”
Williams is less concerned about his relationship with Rumore and tension with the teachers union than he is baffled that more people don’t share his point of view: that the need to turn around this failing district is immediate. “I just don’t understand how everybody’s so passive about what’s happening here,” he says from the backseat of his sedan as it plows through the snow.
The Plan to Fix Buffalo
Williams recently announced his three-year academic strategy for district-wide reform. The plan’s six points focus on a challenging curriculum, accountability, staff development, highly qualified teachers and principals, extended school hours, and parental involvement. None of this is new for school administrators, but Williams insists his approach is different from most.
• On a challenging curriculum:
“We ask four essential questions: What do students need to know and be able to do? That’s instruction. How do we know when they have learned it? That’s assessment. What will we do when they have not learned it? That’s my plan to extend the number of school hours. And what will we do when they already know it? That’s when we accelerate them.”
• On accountability:
“Our standards are online. They’re called, ‘We Are Learners.’ We also have assessment called DIBELS that we give three times a year. It’s a diagnostic test showing us the progress of the students. We have also defined the five pillars of literacy: phonetic awareness, decoding, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. And every school must teach reading in 90-minute reading blocks a day. We’re starting that with eight schools.”
• On professional development:
“We’re starting [to train teachers to teach literacy] in PreK–3 this year. You can’t move the whole system at one time. That’s the problem with public education: Everybody tries to eat the whole pie. We’re going to eat one slice at a time. We’ll look at PreK–3 and see.”
• On highly qualified teachers:
“I’m paying [teachers] $30,000. If you’re a math teacher, you can go to Microsoft, Bell, or IBM and make $50,000. In order to deal with that competitiveness, you have to pay a better salary. But you also have to have stronger accountability. You cannot just pay salaries. We tried that in this country and it didn’t work. You have to have accountability to standards.”
• On extended school hours:
“Our kids do not come to school prepared, so you have to catch the youngsters up. We want to look at our preschoolers who are not ready for kindergarten and extend the school year: four hours a day for 20 days [in the summer]. For our kindergartners who are not ready for first grade, we’ll do the same thing. And then we’ll look at first graders not ready for second grade, third graders not ready for fourth grade [and so on].”
• On parental involvement:
“We’ve never defined what parental involvement means in this country. So what do we have? Parents come to school, pick up a report card, participate in bake sales and booster clubs, but we’ve never defined real involvement. I think we need a definition. My definition is sending your child to school prepared to learn. I mean prepared, literally. The simplest way is to give your child a nice breakfast. There were five of us in our family, and we grew up on oatmeal. And oatmeal is cheap. Then hug your children when they leave home and tell them you love them.”
Photos: ©Mike Groll