A Rust Belt City's School Turnaround

After decades of distrust and dysfunction, Buffalo makes education a priority with a community-wide commitment.

First-grade students are seated in a classroom listening to their teacher.
Margaret Moberg teaches her first-grade class at the Stanley Makowski Early Childhood Center. (Amadou Diallo / The Hechinger Report)

BUFFALO, N.Y.—When 18-year-old Karolina Espinosa looks back to her freshman year at Buffalo’s Hutchinson Central Technical High School, graduation seemed like a long shot. “At the time,” she said, “both of my parents were incarcerated. I had trouble with reading, and I had problems with attendance.” But in May, sitting in the office of her school’s family support specialist, Joell Stubbe, Karolina talked excitedly about going to Buffalo State University, where she’s been accepted into the class of 2021.

Karolina credits the turnaround to her relationship with Stubbe. “She’s like my older sister,” Karolina said. “I don’t really talk about my problems ... or deal with my emotions with people. I don’t even talk to my [real] sister about them or cry in front of her. And I do that with [Stubbe]. Without her I wouldn’t even be in school, honestly. I would have been a dropout.”

As an in-school family support specialist, Stubbe serves as a liaison between students, families and a number of health, legal, and academic support services provided by local community organizations. Stubbe has a counterpart in every public school in the city, yet neither she nor her colleagues are employees of the Buffalo Public School system. Their positions were created by and are funded through Say Yes to Education Buffalo, a local chapter of a New York City-based nonprofit.

In Buffalo, a Rust Belt city still grappling with high poverty and an undereducated population, the results of the Say Yes program have exceeded expectations. Since its launch in 2012, the city’s high-school graduation rate has climbed 15 points, to 64 percent, according to New York State education department figures, the highest rate the city has achieved in more than a decade.

And black and Latino students have seen the most dramatic improvements, significantly narrowing the graduation gap with their white peers. According to Say Yes, it has awarded roughly 4,000 tuition scholarships, and the number of Buffalo schools classified as “in good standing” by the state’s education department has almost doubled since 2012, from 11 to 20.

The Say Yes promise of universal free college tuition to all Buffalo public-school graduates has grabbed public attention. But Say Yes also provides students with support specialists like Stubbe, access to medical and dental care, mental-health counseling, and legal clinics, plus after-school enrichment activities, college-readiness programs, and mentoring; it provides students’ parents with job-readiness workshops and referrals to housing services.

“This isn’t about a scholarship,” said Clotilde Dedecker, the president of the nonprofit Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo. “It’s about shifting a culture. We’re finally dealing with the systemic challenges to success ... instead of just the symptoms.”

Say Yes Buffalo is understandably drawing interest from school districts and local governments around the country, anxious to see if its success can be replicated.

Skeptics, however, question whether Say Yes-style interventions can succeed elsewhere, considering that its solutions not only are difficult to implement, but, at least in the short-term, also cost more than many communities are willing or able to spend. An argument could also be made that a confluence of positive factors and personalities in Buffalo put Say Yes at the center of a perfect storm of opportunity: Its arrival in Buffalo in 2012 coincided with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s creation of a $1 billion jobs and infrastructure investment project.

Say Yes launched its Buffalo chapter by bringing in $15 million in seed funding to create the tuition scholarship fund. But, with an eye toward local accountability and sustainability, the program demanded that the bulk of the heavy lifting, both financial and strategic, be done through a collaboration among city and education officials, community organizations, civic groups, and local philanthropy.

It was this demand for cooperation, local officials say, that created Say Yes’s key benefit: The newfound ability of key players from the mayor’s office, school district, teachers union, parent groups, business community, and higher-education institutions to work closely together toward the common goal of increasing post-secondary education for Buffalo’s students. This partnership-oriented approach is difficult work, participants acknowledge, but they say it is precisely what makes Say Yes both a sustainable model and one that addresses the holistic needs of an under-resourced community.

Karolina Espinosa, a senior at Hutchinson Central Technical High School, will be attending Buffalo State in the fall on a Say Yes tuition scholarship. (Amadou Diallo)

Although Say Yes’s allure of free college tuition was immediately obvious in a city where 54 percent of children live in poverty, many initially viewed the program with skepticism. Dedecker, who was instrumental in bringing the program to Buffalo, recalled low expectations at the outset from almost everyone.

“One of the most common statements I heard when I was meeting with all the stakeholders,” Dedecker said, “was ‘This will never work here.’ Because people just didn’t get along. There was so much acrimony and such a history of distrust and malfunction.”

Among those who held little hope for success was Samuel Radford, president of the Buffalo Schools District Parent Coordinating Council. “I came to Say Yes as a skeptic,” he said, noting previous broken promises to fix the city’s schools. “In Buffalo we’d had 25 percent graduation rates for African American males for the last 50 years. Can you imagine the devastation to a community ... year after year after year?”

And upon learning that as a member of the Say Yes operations committee he would be required to work closely with Philip Rumore, his longtime adversary and the head of the city’s teachers union, Radford remembers, “I didn’t see how this was going to work. Phil and I would fight on the front page of the [Buffalo News]. We didn’t talk to each other.”

One thing that encouraged Radford was that the Say Yes scholarships were going to be available regardless of income, providing a path to induce middle-class families to return to a school system in which, in the 2010-11 school year, nearly eight out of 10 students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch.

“What made this opportunity special,” Radford said, “was that it was for everybody. Usually what causes disunity in the community are the class differences, the race differences, the socioeconomic differences. So now all of a sudden you have something that doesn’t separate us because it’s really for everybody ... which is a game-changer.”

Obstacles also had to be overcome within Buffalo’s education department itself. Will Keresztes, the chief of intergovernmental affairs and a former interim superintendent, recalls the challenges, both practical and philosophical.

“Public school systems,” said Keresztes, “see the education of children as being proprietary. When you bring other people in, you believe, mistakenly, that you’re giving up some kind of necessary power. So public school districts are hesitant to ... make decisions collaboratively with institutions outside of their orbit. That’s how they’re wired.”

In 2012 the task of getting everyone to the table and facilitating dialogue amid decades of personal and institutional distrust fell largely to David Rust, the executive director of the city’s Say Yes chapter and a native Buffalo resident.

“At first the partnership was fragile because we hadn’t been in the same room together before,” Rust said. He set up the Say Yes operating committee with the strict condition that the key decision-makers from every partnering organization meet face-to-face with each other every two weeks, without fail.

“It’s much easier to criticize someone who you don’t sit next to on a regular basis,” he said. “When you get to hear somebody’s perspective and really listen to them ... I think it broke down a lot of perceived barriers for our partners.”

Radford agrees: “It forces people with some very different political views to find common ground. If you’re looking for something easy, this isn’t it.”

But that cooperation proved an unexpected boon to a chaotic system, Radford recalled. “Over time, Phil and I went from being adversaries to ... a stable force in the education arena,” he said. “At one point the city had seven different superintendents over five years. Those are conditions that almost guarantee failure for our kids. The fact that we had this Say Yes operating committee is what saved the progress we’d been making.”

Dedecker and Radford credit Rust and his team for emphasizing data and analysis to ensure that resources went where they could have the greatest impact. At the outset a survey was conducted to assess the needs of schools, families, and communities. Dedecker said the No. 1 request wasn’t about academics but access to mental-health services.

Danielle Galenski, a family-support specialist at the Stanley Makowski Early Childhood Center, sees that need on a regular basis. “Mental health is a big piece of the puzzle here,” she said of her school, which goes from pre-k to fourth grade. Referring to the in-school mental-health counselor who is on site each day through a Say Yes partnership, Galenski noted, “I have, over the years, made many referrals for kids to see her on a weekly basis. Having the clinic here at school is so beneficial because there are a lot of obstacles to getting kids to counseling.”

A doctor's office in a school
Buffalo’s Stanley Makowski Early Childhood Center offers its pre-k through fourth-grade students a full-service health clinic through a Say Yes partnership with Kaleida Health, the city’s largest healthcare provider. (Amadou Diallo)

Mental-health needs can range from hyperactivity to aggression, said Galenski, but in a neighborhood in which nearly one-third of residents are unemployed, the effects of generational poverty itself can trigger acts that are easily mistaken for behavioral disorders.

“Trauma can look like ADHD,” she said. “So we have to ask, does this child really have ADHD or could it be that his family has just been through significant amounts of trauma, and he’s not eating before he comes to school, doesn't have any attention at home or maybe he has experienced multiple family members being killed in the last year? Those symptoms can really look very similar to ADHD.”

As a result of Say Yes Buffalo partnerships, 11 district schools currently have on-site full-service health clinics; a mobile health-clinic program is set to launch next fall. And 52 of the district’s 59 buildings provide in-school access to mental-health services. Say Yes also credits its partnerships for a K-6 summer camp program that served 2,500 students in 2016.

That same year, according to Say Yes, the city’s school district budgeted $8.3 million to fund after-school enrichment programs in each of its buildings, convert 13 low-performing schools into community schools, and open four adult centers across the city to provide employment and legal assistance to public-school parents. Say Yes Buffalo partners allocated an additional $10 million in funding that year for the other key student support service programs.

In addition, local fundraising efforts have delivered more than $24 million of the $33 million required to make the scholarship program sustainable over 10 years, and an additional $12 million has been raised toward a planned $100 million endowment, which Say Yes said will fund the scholarship program in perpetuity.

Buffalo, however, is still far from where it needs to be, advocates say, and in many respects the challenges will only get tougher.

Demario Strickland is a first-year principal at Harvey Austin, a prekindergarten-8 school on the city’s east side that New York State has flagged as a “priority school” after years of low academic achievement. The school, like the neighborhood, is overwhelmingly African American and poor; more than 90 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. In an effort to build stronger ties to the community and increase engagement with families, Strickland and his staff have established Saturday programs offering everything from academic and physical fitness sessions to community beautification projects and field trips to pumpkin-patch farms.

While Strickland regularly sees turnouts of more than 100 participants on these Saturdays, highlighting the need for safe, recreational opportunities in the community, he also knows there are still too many parents and families he’s not reaching, with serious ramifications. “I may have three out of 10 kids doing well,” he said as an example. “These are the kids where I know the parents. The other 70 percent, I haven’t met. We need to find ways to get reluctant parents involved.”

Gesturing outside his office window to the boarded-up houses and vacant lots that dot the blocks surrounding the school, Strickland, who grew up nearby said, “Have a walk and take a look around the neighborhood. It hurts.”

“We’ve got a long way to go,” Rust acknowledged. “I think we’re at the 10-yard line and the real Say Yes story will be told in 20 years. Are our students completing post-secondary education? Are their kids going to college? This should be generational change, and there are no quick answers. Say Yes is a long-term approach to a community-wide challenge.”

A sidewalk leads up to the entrance of a school building in Buffalo
Harvey Austin Elementary is located on Buffalo’s east side, where high unemployment results in 92 percent of its students receiving free or reduced-priced lunch. (Amadou Diallo)

With a proposal underway to open a Say Yes chapter in Cleveland, Buffalo has set a high bar for rapid results. In Syracuse, which became the first Say Yes chapter in 2008, it has taken nearly twice as long to achieve gains similar to Buffalo’s in the graduation rate, and in 2016 the scholarship endowment required a $20 million contribution from county officials in order to close a fundraising shortfall. The most recently launched Say Yes chapter, in Guilford County, North Carolina, was forced to replace its universal tuition scholarship with income restrictions after a higher-than-estimated number of affluent families claimed the tuition assistance, resulting in scholarship payouts of more than $6 million for the program’s first graduating class, a sum that Say Yes officials concede is simply unsustainable.

Emphasizing that Buffalo shares the same challenges as countless urban communities, Rust is optimistic that his city’s success is replicable. “It’s a model based on collective impact,” he said, “so it’s not reliant on any one institution.”

Jacques Steinberg, a senior vice president of the Say Yes national organization, cites the importance of getting multiple entities to work together. “For a partnership to ultimately be successful,” he said, “communities must be willing to embrace broad-based collaboration ... in ways that may be different than how they are used to working.”

Noting that Say Yes’s financial commitment is, by design, limited to a six-year window, Steinberg stressed that cities looking to emulate Buffalo, “must be committed to setting, and meeting, milestones ... along the pathway to sustainability.”

Replicating Buffalo’s spirit of collaborative decision-making and fundraising success could prove difficult, but advocates point to the huge long-term potential. “I look at this as investing in the intellectual infrastructure of our city,” said Rust, who sees the Say Yes partnerships as a path to economic development through an improved public-education system. And in Buffalo, the Say Yes approach is now so ingrained that at this point, said Keresztes, “We can’t imagine Buffalo not being a Say Yes school district.”

This post appears courtesy of The Hechinger Report.