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BCAT helping Buffalo address a growing desire for arts education

Nick Lippa

There are some Buffalo Public Schools that don’t offer music programs like chorus or art classes like photography. The Buffalo Center for Arts and Technology (BCAT) on Main Street currently helps fill a role by providing these kind of classes and more for students after school. BCAT has been growing recently due to increased interest. And they have been able to meet a growing need in part to increased philanthropic support.

BCAT gets kids from many different backgrounds and several Buffalo Public Schools. Music and art acts as an outlet for these students. BCAT President Gina Burkhardt said classes allow them a chance to participate in a different type of classroom environment.

“Most times they’re hungry and they’re cranky and they’re just tired. And they walk in the door and they can’t help but feel the collegiality that happens,” Burkhardt said. “So all of the team here, we are all about welcoming them. And smiling. And letting them know no matter what happens to them during the day, that they can feel better.”

There are kids from about 20 different high schools that attend. When Burkhardt first came to BCAT, they had four art programs that were offered after school. Now there’s 8 and they are more focused. Burkhardt said they can help fill a gap.

“What we hear in general, whether it’s true or not, and we don’t push to find the truth, but what we hear from them is that they don’t have the same kind of advantage or access in their schools that they have here. And for whatever reason, it’s not offered or they don’t have an equitable opportunity to take advantage of it.”

Cardell Hollinsworth is a senior at Health Science Charter and BCAT student. He said his school offers an art class, but hasn’t offered him music—something he has a passion for.

“I grew up in a church. I used to play with the instruments and stuff. And then I used to want to play the drums, keyboards and stuff,” he said. “I used to look at all these other rappers and then how they used to be a big influence on me and they make me want to do that.”

BCAT Vocal Ensemble Instructor Lily Jones caters her class to the interests of students like Hollinsworth. They talk openly in class about artists they listen to at home and incorporate those interests in to their eventually performances.

Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO
BCAT Vocal Ensemble Instructor Lily Jones leading her class in a discussion about what artists students listen to

“There’s a reason why kids are drawn to music and it’s because of the music that they hear every day,” Jones said. "I don’t think it’s the importance of that kind of music versus your classical music (inferring familiar music) should be discounted. It has a huge impact on how we live our life every day.”

For Jones and other members of the BCAT staff, arts education is a different, important learning environment for students.

“Kinesthetic learning in general (is important). Allowing kids to move around as they learn is something that is so important and influential in helping people grown. I know it helps me learn. Just that time to get up out of your seat, and I know that you have gym class, but it’s different than a cultivated artistic environment,” Jones said.

Classes have a eight to one student to teacher ratio. Classes are capped at 16. That’s something one of Jones’ students from East Community High School, Ziyon, really values.

“The thing about this program though, is I get to go around. I don’t usually get to do much stuff. I usually just sit at home after school. This is stuff to do after school,” Ziyon said.

Ziyon said East has good music programs, but there’s benefits to BCAT’s more collegiate approach.

“It feels more one on one. Enclosed. I feel like it’s more personal. I can say whatever I want without getting in trouble or raising my hand,” Ziyon said.

One of the thing BCAT prides itself on is that students will often get paid for their art/work. That takes careful planning when considering the funds needed to make that happen. Especially for programs that are free to sign up for.

“We don’t say, ’Oh we are going to teach dance.’ We teach dance because the kids say, 20 of us are really interested and we can’t do it any place else," Burkhardt said. "And so we would offer it here.”

BCAT recently received a grant from the Citi Foundation to offer workforce Development class for 18 to 24 year olds. They have funding from the Cullen Foundation to support a college and career coordinator that will help students transition once they graduate. The Oishei Foundation and First Niagara also contribute.

Burkhardt said Buffalo is a generous, philanthropic community with a passion for the arts, but questions what is the healthiest way to pursue long term arts education funding?

“People are very generous and yes we are overly dependent on volunteers and the philanthropic community," she said. "There has to be a better way to do this, for sustainability. There just has to be.”

Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO
BCAT's rehearsal space

It’s common knowledge students who take music and art classes are statistically linked to higher graduation rates. BCAT uses these programs as a motivator to keep kids in the BPS.

“The youth that we see are on the edge,” Burkhardt said. "They could any day think about leaving school. And we really work hard to instill in them not having graduated from high school is not really an option. In order to be here, you have to commit to that. And then we will work on the next thing.”

BCAT has sensed there’s a growing want for arts education in Buffalo. They believe it will help keep more students in school—and they plan to keep growing as long as they receive support.

Nick Lippa leads our Arts & Culture Coverage, and is also the lead reporter for the station's Mental Health Initiative, profiling the struggles and triumphs of those who battle mental health issues and the related stigma that can come from it.
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