Buffalo’s newest charter school: 'If we can’t deliver, close us down'
As Buffalo students head back to class, WBFO is taking a look at the city’s two newest charter schools. In this series, Education Reporter Kyle Mackie reports on the first year of Persistence Preparatory Academy and Buffalo Collegiate Charter School.
Joelle Formato isn’t the most obvious pick of someone to start a new school rooted in the communities of Buffalo’s East Side.
“I grew up in Williamsville. I went to Boston College. And suddenly, I was placed in the middle of Prince George’s County, Maryland,” Formato told WBFO. “It was the first time I was the only white person in a room.”
Formato had signed a contract to work at Price WaterhouseCoopers (PwC) when she said she had a “crisis of conscience” and decided to join Teach for America, the national fellowship program that trains corps members to teach in under-resourced public schools, instead.
“I knew about four days in that urban education was it for me and this was going to be my life career.”
Today, Formato is founder and head of school at Persistence Preparatory Academy (PPA), currently located on the third floor of the Family Life Center on Michigan Avenue, just south of the Fruit Belt neighborhood. PPA opened last year with just two grades—kindergarten and first—but it will eventually grow to K-8.
Both PPA and Buffalo Collegiate, the city’s other youngest charter, grew out of the Building Excellent Schools (BES) fellowship.
“Building Excellent Schools is a national nonprofit that identifies and trains leaders to really transform education in communities across the country,” said BES CEO Aasimah Navlakhi.
Formato and Brian Pawloski, the founder of Buffalo Collegiate, who both grew up in suburban towns outside Buffalo, became BES’ first fellows in the city through a partnership with the private Cullen Foundation.
“We needed to make sure that there were local partners who were invested and committed to improving educational outcomes for students,” Navlakhi said of BES’ decision to come to Buffalo. But she added that even though her organization’s flagship fellowship programs trains educators like Formato and Pawloski to build new charter schools, BES also provides training for other public school leaders.
“It’s not an either/or,” she said. “I think we’re all looking towards creating good schools for students and that we sometimes get mired in the label of a charter versus a district.”
The Cullen Foundation funded Formato and Pawloski’s first fellowship year, during which they received extensive leadership training and wrote and submitted their charter applications to The State University of New York (SUNY) Charter Schools Institute, through which both schools are now accredited. The fellows also had the opportunity to visit and learn from some of the highest-performing charter schools in the country before returning to Buffalo to develop a board, recruit students, and find a physical space where they could open their doors in August 2018.
After months of searching, Formato said she found PPA’s current space, which once housed the now-shuttered Aloma D. Johnson Charter School, in a building owned by St. John Baptist Church by going door-to-door to churches on the East Side.
Formato worked in public schools in both Maryland and Buffalo before starting the BES fellowship in 2017. She said her team at PPA is unique because they’re “pretty skeptical of charter schools in general.”
“We have a lot of very mediocre or low-performing charter schools who have not been held to the standard that they should be,” Formato said. “So, it was really on Brian and I to say, ‘We're really here to raise the bar and show you what is possible.’”
For PPA’s first year, it was easier for Formato to recruit kindergarteners, who were starting school for the first time. But the founding first-graders had to come from somewhere else, and they ended up transferring from 28 different schools.
The vast majority of PPA’s feeder schools were Buffalo public schools, according to Formato. PPA also received four students from different charter schools.
“I was going to a drive where they give away free turkeys and the fixings for Thanksgiving and Persistence Preparatory Academy was there, so I walked over to the table and I'm like, ‘Hey what's this about?’” Robin Gray told WBFO.
Gray chose to take her son Javonni out of Buffalo public schools after kindergarten and enroll him at PPA. She said he was so bored at his old school, PS #80 Highgate Heights, that he finished his work early and sometimes got in trouble for distracting other kids. But at the new school?
“I just love it,” Gray said. “Javonni exceeds. He’s learning—he was learning all year long—like they were challenging him all year long.”
Charisse Byrd had a similar experience with her grandson, Donnel. He spent both kindergarten and first grade at PS #37 Marva J. Daniel Futures Preparatory School before she decided to have him repeat first grade at PPA.
“He did not know how to read when he went to Persistence Prep,” Byrd said. “Now he reads everything.”
Byrd is the first to admit that Donnel had behavior problems, but she didn’t like how they were being handled in the district.
“He was suspended all the time. I'm like, ‘Oh my God, how is he going to learn if he is suspended all the time?’”
Larry Scott is a new at-large member of the Buffalo Board of Education. He’s also an alternative to suspension specialist for the neighboring Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda Union Free School District. Scott and fellow at-large board member Dr. Ann Rivera, an associate professor of English and chair of the Liberal Arts and Professional Studies Department at Villa Maria College, both shared their views with WBFO for this series.
“I completely agree that suspending at such a young age is not helpful, not productive long-term,” Scott said. “But I will again acknowledge that you’re going to find that across the system, whether it’s urban, charter, public, suburban.”
Scott also said expanding restorative justice options is one of the board's highest priorities, and that the district’s Parent Congress is always available to address parent concerns.
WBFO spoke to a dozen parents or family members of children who transferred from other schools to attend PPA or Buffalo Collegiate during the 2018-2019 academic year. All of the parents were satisfied—if not extremely satisfied—by their decision.
Marlane Benning, whose twins attended kindergarten at PS #54 Dr. Blackman School of Excellence, expressed the most common criticism heard from parents of children who previously attended Buffalo public schools.
“I had sent a note in twice,” Benning said, regarding a minor issue with her daughter. “I had called, and so after that I didn't hear anything, so I went up to the school, you know, went to the office to let them know what I wanted and I was told, ‘Try again, make an appointment to come in,’ and that wasn't ok with me when I had tried so many times before that. And I don't have that problem at Persistence.”
A district spokesperson said Buffalo public schools have a “robust open door policy” with parents. Scott, however, said he acknowledged and has heard complaints like Benning’s directly from other parents. He said it’s an issue of safety and fairness in the much-larger public system.
“You just want to have the same policy across the board to just ensure that everybody is safe within our schools.”
Dr. Rivera, who in July was sworn in as the board’s vice president of student achievement, agreed.
“I’m really sensitive to what parents are saying because it’s important. Because as a district, we’re committed to serve students and their families, and communication is an important part of that,” Rivera said.
“But I’d also like to point out that, last year, the Buffalo public schools served 33,415 students across 60 schools. That’s not to dismiss or diminish what they’re saying. It's critical that faculty and administrators respond to parents. But I think it's a more balanced picture and there's more communication going on than not. We're still going to work on this. We have to work on this. We have to make sure that we keep working towards 100 percent satisfaction.”
In late July, at a welcome event for new families held in PPA’s gym, members of the Canisius College women’s basketball team played with kids in one corner (Jasmine Mungo, a former player, is part of the school’s leadership team). A pop-up barber shop gave free haircuts in another. The event felt more like a party than orientation. But Formato said she knows her school has to perform academically in order for the fun to continue.
“I don't think by nature of our being a charter we have this big shiny gold star that says, ‘We're better than [public schools].’ I think it is an amazing opportunity that is ours then to pick up and run and be able to deliver on. And if we can't deliver it, then close us down.”
Tune into Morning Edition on WBFO on Thursday, Sept. 5, for the second part of this series on Buffalo’s newest charter schools.