Buffalo’s community schools were in the spotlight Saturday as the city’s public school district hosted a community schools summit.
The first-ever New York State Community Schools Summit for Central and Western New York drew about 300 participants from across New York and across the border in Canada. The event was held at PS #94 West Hertel Academy, one of Buffalo Public Schools’ 21 community schools, at the same time as its regular Saturday Academy—a signature feature of the district’s community schools.
“[I’m] just going to be honest, I do think we run the best community school initiative in the State of New York,” New York State Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes from Buffalo said to an outburst of cheers and applause during her opening remarks.
“To have these buildings open on Saturdays to offer not just an opportunity for the young people who attend school but for their parents, and even for community people who don’t even have children in the system, it’s about educating everybody and creating a better opportunity for a community,” Peoples-Stokes said.
The idea behind the community school movement is exactly what its name sounds like: to use public schools as hubs of resources for the whole community. Buffalo’s network of community schools is the second-largest in New York State after New York City, having grown from zero community schools just four years ago.
“We had a vision together—the board, the community, everyone—and we said, you know, we have divisions in our great city and we need to close those divisions. We need to be about inclusion and bridge building and coming together,” said Superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash Saturday. “And we felt that one of the ways, one of the best ways to do that, was to open up our schools from early in the morning [to] late in the evening and every day except Sunday.”
In 2016, the district identified its highest-needs schools, many of which were located in neighborhoods that struggle with high poverty rates and gang violence, and instead of closing them, turned them into community schools offering a variety of services beyond traditional K-12 education.
Some of those services include mental health and other health screenings, like pop-up dental cleanings, four parent centers, legal support, additional after-school programming and Saturday Academies, which provide free breakfast and lunch and a range of educational and physical activities for community members from pre-school age to seniors.
“What other way to transform a community than through the school?” Buffalo Public Schools Associate Superintendent for Strategic Alignment and Innovation Aníbal Soler, Jr., told WBFO. “We are strong believers that if you have a good, high-quality school that the rest of the community can start to also turn around.”
The summit keynote speaker, José Muñoz, director of the Coalition for Community Schools at the Institute for Educational Leadership, said he agreed that community schools are the best way to “break the back of poverty.”
“A community school is really a strategy and not a program, so it’s a strategy to actually achieve equity and social and economic mobility,” Muñoz said. “For short, it’s a strategy to unite schools, families and communities on the behalf [of] and for young peoples’ success.”
Buffalo’s community schools are facilitated in large part by Say Yes Buffalo, which staffs a full-time community school navigator at each of the 21 schools. Muñoz compared their role to that of the center on a football team, who needs to listen carefully, display leadership by calling the huddle, and finally, start the play.
“My role really is to study the school, the culture, the metrics [and] the challenges,” said Ahlam Ahmed, the community school navigator at West Hertel Academy. Ahmed then coordinates all of the programs coming into the school to meet the needs of students, parents and the surrounding community.
Touring West Hertel’s Saturday Academy this weekend as summit participants did the same, WBFO observed students working on spelling exercises while getting physical exercise in the swimming pool, a fall-themed mini book making activity, a clothing giveaway, packed cafeteria, and several health stations, including a dental van and informational table about STD prevention, among many other activities and resources.
Ahmed said that, for students, seeing and interacting with the principal and other school staff on Saturdays helps forge closer relationships.
“When they’re in school and the staff say, ‘You know, we really care about you and we really want to know why you’re struggling with A, B and C,’ that they [students] know, they have that memory, that recollection that ‘Ok, you know what, I did come into Saturday Academy, I did speak with them, I did eat with them, I laughed with them,’ so it’s really building a relationship bond with everybody in the community.”
Buffalo Public Schools also said community schools are producing real results in terms of student academic achievement.
“What we see is that when children and their families come and participate in three or more Saturday school activities, extra learning and the after-school programs,” Superintendent Cash said, “their attendance goes up, their motivation goes up to come to school, their grades go up and their achievement goes up.”
Soler added that Buffalo Public Schools has graduated more than 1,500 students from its community schools over the past three years, and that English Language Arts [ELA] proficiency at the schools has nearly doubled from 9% to 17%. Math proficiency has grown from 10% to 13%.