Dr. Kriner Cash had a ray of confidence gleaming from him as he spoke of his experience thus far as the Superintendent for the Buffalo Public School District. He comes off as a thrill-seeker; he likes a good challenge and isn’t deterred from taking on a task because of the difficulties that may come with it, especially the obstacles that seem to linger in the Buffalo Public Schools (BPS).
Dr. Cash has been facing challenges throughout his career. “I look for them, and I’m really excited to be here in Buffalo,” he said as we sat down at his office in City Hall.
Karibu had an exclusive interview with Dr. Cash to talk about the education system in Buffalo, receivership, his stance on test refusal, and more.
How has the journey as Superintendent been thus far? You walked in with a lot of challenges awaiting you.
I did but I look for them. I’m really excited to be here in Buffalo. I was called to a meeting by an old friend and colleague, the current commissioner of education for NYS; MarryEllen Elia. She said, “Kriner, it’s time for us to talk.” She told me she needed my help. Long story short, we ended up having dinner. She came from Albany, I came from where I was in Massachusetts, and we met half way and had dinner. She said, ‘I need help in the state with superintendents who have done good reform work in other parts of the country. You know that I know your work, would you be interested in helping me?’
First, she gave me a couple of scenarios – some with the state office, some as a distinguished educator, a consultant roll, and another was as superintended at one of the Big 5’s; Rochester, Syracuse, Buffalo and so forth. I said ‘where do you need the most help?’ She said ‘Buffalo,’ and I said ‘well that’s where I’m going.’
That is how I’ve seen my work; if you look at my career over the last 20 years, it’s been in places where there have been a lot of challenges, yet a lot of opportunities. I’ve worked in high poverty areas, but with beautiful diversity among the children and the families. Buffalo represented that kind of challenge and opportunity better than any other place that she was talking about. That is how I got interested in the role, but then I had to go through a vetting process. I had to go through the board, I had to interview with a lot of people from the community so they can be a part of selecting their new Superintendent. As you know, it had been a while since they had a consistent and full time superintendent. I started studying about the challenges here, and the more I read the more I felt I would be a good match. It was just a matter of whether the staff and the community would feel the same way.
What are some issues you felt had to be addressed immediately?
There was this negative stigma hanging over BPS; there is this perception that it is a failing school system, and there were a lot of things happening that needed improvement. The children, the staff, and the parents weren’t doing enough and the teachers were disgruntled. Morale was low.
First, you have to instill a ‘We can do it’ attitude, and a ‘we got this, we’re going to do this work, we’re not going to be defeated by it.’ So the first thing was about finding an executive team to work with me in this. You have to have lieutenants, you have to have people who can get the work deployed for you once you have a vision and figure out the strategy you want to use, and you have to have people who can get that done for you. So the first and most important thing was to develop and hire a staff that believed in what you believe in and your vision for the work and for the district. I think we’ve done that.
I know good things take a lot of time, but what can you say you have accomplished since you’ve started?
I don’t know so much how it was before I got here; I’ve just heard about it. But I’ve seen a lot of positive seeds growing. I see the energy and the enthusiasm about the work, and a positive response to it. That’s been widespread and its observable; you can just ask people, you can talk to people, and you can feel that difference. That’s a positive. For example, look at how the board is working together – the tone of the meetings are more civil and cooperative in spirit. Then, we’ve rolled out an actual reform agenda. We’re not just working day to day, we have a big vision and we have a lot of work that goes into that. We call it the new education bargain with students and parents. It has six main planks, and each one of those is starting to be launched and get out to be approved by the board, and then out into the community. We have a plan to take many of our struggling schools and turn them into strong community schools. That’s exciting and starting. We have some really good high schools and then we have some high schools that need to be re-imagined, and we started that, too. It’s called ‘The New Innovated High School Plan.” Several of those schools are off the drawing board and we’re recruiting students to those new schools.
There are over 60 spoken languages in Buffalo. Are there enough translators to accommodate the students?
No, there certainly is not and that is what we are seeking; to make sure we have at least four or five translators that are really good. We continue to reach out to the community to get the top six. There are the top most spoken languages we need translators for; Burmese, Somali, Karen Arabic, Nepali, and Spanish. They make up 84% of the ELL population in Buffalo at this time. It’s a challenge but we’re working at it, and we’ve put aside dollars for it and we’re trying to get the qualified people for it. But we never have enough, no.
NYC has a state test waiver for students new to this country, so they don’t have to take any state tests for two years upon entering. Are you thinking of bringing this waiver or something similar to Buffalo?
I think it is on one of the legislative agendas. I think it’s at [the waiver] one year right now, and I think at some point it was three years. Maybe two years would be the compromise, but that is on a legislative agenda and I’m not familiar on exactly which one it is. I think the regents may have it on theirs and I think that parent engagement groups may have it on there’s as well, and other groups. Maybe the New York School Board Associate may have it. It’s being circulated, and I agree with it.
Tell me about test refusal/opt out, and what students who choose to opt out will do instead?
I don’t know what students will do instead, and I wouldn’t recommend that they do it. I recommend that they take the test, especially if they have been here for more than a year, and see how they do. That’ll help them design a program and help us design a better program to help them learn English and get ahead of school and reach their individual and family dreams.
What is your stance on the school-to-prison pipeline?
I have been working on that issue for most of my career. I’ve been working over 30 years to make sure we find good supports, interventions and prevention strategies for our kids versus arrest, transport, fingerprint, and putting them into the criminal justice system. I call it the issue of dis-proportionality. I’ve had effective strategies in working with that in the past, and I am very passionate about it, but also very strategic about it.
Education is the first line of that; you work within your security team in school, you work with trying to get kids to learn alternative ways to address anger, and you work to fight those kinds of issues. Discuss it, have peer support groups, have what’s called “Restore the Justice Program” launched and put into high incident schools and then have a great and close, working relationship with the Buffalo Police Department so they can get out in the communities. I strongly believe in community policing and developing relationships with the community members, so that there is more prevention and discussion about what is going on.
When you have good relationships and a rapport, you don’t stop everything but you could prevent a lot and you can work to develop ways to get along and reduce the violence. The whole thing is about reducing violence in the community. There is a lot of different kinds of violence that occurs in our communities; from domestic violence to gang violence, to in school bullying, cyber bulling – all of those are forms of violence from physical, to psychological, to social and emotional. We have to curtail and reduce these issues. But you need strategies to help people because frankly, they’re under stress and don’t have coping mechanisms to deal with that stress. It builds up and unleashes in different forms of violence and we can do a lot better to help with that.
Have you thought about implementing after school programs and even weekend programs to keep the students preoccupied?
That is part of the after school model, to deal with three pieces; the academic piece, the psycho-social piece, the recreational and health and wellness piece, but that middle piece is exactly that – helping young people cope with the many issues they are dealing with. We have in BPS 46 mental health clinics out of 55 schools, which I think is fantastic. Students can go and talk to a social worker or a counselor about the issues they are facing and stressing over. That kind of support is unparalleled in my experience, especially in large public school systems. That is an example of a way to help with this. It’s a priority for us and it has been in Buffalo for some time.
A few months ago at a Buffalo Parent-Teacher Organization (BPTO) meeting, you said people aren’t taking responsibility and playing the blame game. Is receivership a better option, or getting the board in shape?
Again, I came in on where we were. However we got to that point, we got to there. Receivership seemed to be a response by the state of dealing with what they call chronically failing or under preforming schools – and by chronically, we’re talking about 10, 15 years. That is one of the things the commissioner talked to me about. It wasn’t about one year or two years of testing; it was about no matter what the test or data you’re looking at, and no matter what the perception in the community is, they feel those schools have been not serving the parents and the children very well. That was the issue. The receivership law came into existence as a response to all of that. We’re gonna get more money but you’re going to have to be aggressive in doing something about this long standing problem. In that sense, I think it was a good thing because it spurs action and activity towards doing something about that longstanding condition that I think is a travesty for parents and children.
If you have a school system, and while those schools can’t do everything because parents and students have to do their part, but schools should serve their customers, which are children. They should serve them well, so if you’re with or in a school system for 12 years, you should be able to read, you should learn critical thinking skills, you should be able to speak well in several languages, you should come away with good technology skills for the 21st century, you should know how to navigate our democratic society and what that means in terms of your responsibility, and you should be able to go on to a post secondary option and start right away.
It shouldn’t take two years of remedial courses before you can even start to accrue credit towards graduation. Those are the data points I look at to determine if a school system has served its students well, or not. And, to me, there is still a lot of work to do in that regard. I’m looking at receivership as the way I’m doing it – as a catalyst to help with that, but I am also doing what you talk about, where you work with teachers, you work with the people inside the system now and get them to think differently about the problem and be part of the solution, instead of throwing each other under the bus or blaming each other.
We all have a piece of it, we all play our part, and if we do it well, we’ll solve this challenge in Buffalo. We’re much closer than I think the perception suggests. If you’ve ever climbed a big mountain, its those last two hundred yards that the hardest. I say we’re mid mountain right now.
What about teachers who feel underfunded and have a lack of resources?
Sounds like an excuse to me. I don’t mean to go off topic, but I think its related. You remember when we were struggling with the world wide aids epidemic in the United States? It was being brought to our attention through the media on a daily basis. There was one dedicated doctor, who contracted aids, came back to this country to get treated and went back to his country.
He never had enough resources, but he raised awareness that we need more, and went back to get into the fight. Last I heard, we didn’t solve it but we’ve done a good job at containing it, and reducing the number of cases in Western Africa. My point is – this work is never really done. Some years you may have more resources than you had the last, other years you may have little or none, but if you’re a professional like he was and many of our best teachers are, you keep doing the work. You just keep going in every day and doing the work and let board members, politicians, and maybe the superintendent fight for more resources.
I’m fighting now for $40 million more to do this work, on top of what we get. But its not money alone. Money helps but it’s how you spend the money, how the money is used to help strategically with the problems we have in our district and community – those are the challenges. At the end of the day we want to reduce poverty. Poverty is the big killer of dreams, of goals, and ambition among children and family and education is the biggest opportunity you have to get out of poverty. That is why I get so excited about the work; every day is a new day and you see who and what you’re helping each day, you’re trying to help more kids and families. So receivership, when you work with the community, and a no excuses culture; those are the keys for me.
If it weren’t for Harriet Tubman, we would have never gotten here if she used an excuse of having no resources. She freed many slaves and kept going back, bringing more slaves up through the under ground railroad to freedom up in Buffalo. That is what I model my vision, energy and commitment after. It’s based on a no excuses, get the work done and every child depends on the work we do now with what we have. So give them our best, and expect the best from them.
Any last words?
I can feel the movement going on in Buffalo; we’ve been talking about the economic side of things here, the renaissance, the beautiful renovations in the city – you could feel it is becoming a beautiful city again. What I can say to you, is there is an educational renaissance occurring as well. And it is not occurring by one or two people, but it is a ground swell from the people themselves. From the New Americans coming, to the teachers who have been here for 30 or 40 years, to the administrators and the citizens; that’s what we’re doing and we’re being responsive to the best ideas coming from those customers. This agenda and new education bargain I talk about, it is not a bargain that I am making alone. This is coming from everybody telling us what they want. I am just a catalyst for that – a quilt maker to bring all of these beautiful patches together into one canopy. I am excited to be a part of that. I think that energy will continue as long as the people stay engaged; they’re the key.