Buffalo’s education landscape is changing, and two new charter schools are leaning in
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.
Listen to Part I about Persistence Preparatory Academy here
Brian Pawloski first heard about Building Excellent Schools (BES), the national nonprofit that trains leaders to open new charter schools, in 2013.
“I reached out to them and I asked, ‘Are you interested in me applying?’ and they said, ‘Yeah, you can go ahead and apply but if you apply you're going to have to move because we're not coming to Buffalo because it's too politically toxic. And there's no funding.”
Pawloski, who was working at the now-closed Oracle Charter School at the time, replied, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
Over the next few years, Pawloski said he lost three of his young male students to violence, which he connected to a shortage of high-quality educational options in Buffalo. And he knew from working at a troubled charter school what he would be up against if he ever got the opportunity to start his own school.
“Charters do not have a very strong reputation in the city of Buffalo. While they’re not a new initiative in this city, a lot of other cities have had, I think, more national best practices incorporated into the education sphere,” Pawloski told WBFO. “Buffalo, for many years, was a city that, I think, saw the national perspective of who we were, and we put up walls.”
But a lot has changed in education in Buffalo over the past 10 years, when Pawloski moved back after teaching in Alabama and Arizona and then managing Teach for America (TFA) corps members in Baltimore. Say Yes Buffalo launched in 2012 and TFA followed in 2014. Dr. Kriner Cash was appointed superintendent of Buffalo Public Schools in 2015 and launched the district’s Education Bargain with Students and Parents in 2016. City Year joined the wave of education reform in 2018.
But most importantly for BES’ change of heart about Buffalo, the private Cullen Foundation opened its office in 2014 and identified BES in 2016 as a means to reaching its 15-year goal of adding 3,500 seats in “high-performing” schools that would be accessible to economically disadvantaged students.
The Cullen Foundation funded Pawloski and Joelle Formato’s participation in the BES fellowship and gave each of their schools—Buffalo Collegiate Charter School and Persistence Preparatory Academy (PPA), respectively—$400,000 in startup money.
The foundation declined an interview request, but Executive Director Florine Luhr said in a written statement, “Cullen Foundation takes an evidence-based approach to investment decisions—in other words, we fund what works.”
And Pawloski said his school is working, according to i-Ready, the online adaptive learning software his team uses for internal student assessments.
“We started off with only 12% at grade level [in English Language Arts (ELA)] in fourth grade,” said Pawloski. “Thirty-nine percent were one grade level behind, 49% were two or more [behind].”
By the end of the year, Pawloski said the percentage of Buffalo Collegiate fourth-graders on grade level in ELA had more than doubled to 28%. Math proficiency for the same group more than quadrupled from 8 to 34%.
“Fifth grade would be a more natural breaking point,” Pawloski said about the decision to found Buffalo Collegiate as a 4-12 school. “But you can make up significant literacy and numeracy gaps in a shorter period time in fourth grade.”
Both Pawloski and Formato saw greater gains in proficiency among their younger students, which Pawloski said can be partially attributed to the “soft element of culture.” Nine-year-olds, he said, are more likely to adopt a new positive school culture than fifth-graders who are closer to middle school age.
“We got to define for them what school is like,” said Formato, of her founding kindergartners at PPA. “It’s this joyful, structured place where adults really care about you and they believe in you, and you saw the impact of that.”
Formato said her first-graders also made important progress, but “it just took so much more time to unlearn” what their experience at another kindergarten had taught them about school.
Charter schools outperformed public schools in both ELA and math last year, according to New York State test results. But the highest performing charter schools are in New York City. In Buffalo, charters have had mixed success, with some—but not all—outperforming district schools.
Buffalo Collegiate’s first state test results, which Pawloski said he expected to be low, found 21% of all students to be at or above grade level for ELA and 11% for math. Across its network of 60 schools, Buffalo public schools had proficiency rates for all students of 25% for ELA and 21% for math.
“It looks like the charter schools in Buffalo and Western New York in ELA scored about 7% higher. For math, I think it's about 10% higher,” said Larry Scott, at-large member of the Buffalo Board of Education. “To me, that's almost insignificant when you consider that they are not educating as a whole as many kids with disabilities, severe disabilities, and ELL [English Language Learners] students as well.”
In a written statement, Buffalo School Board President Sharon Belton-Cottman expressed the same criticism of charter schools, which are publicly funded and free to attend, but independently operated:
"The marketing campaigns of area charter schools promote themselves as highly successful educators, but the truth is that they choose who they want to educate. There is no accurate comparison of success without including English as a Second Language and Special Education students. In the Buffalo Public Schools, we educate all children. We can't sacrifice public education at the expense of exclusionary practices."
None of the Buffalo school board members WBFO spoke to for this series made specific complaints about PPA or Buffalo Collegiate. However, Dr. Ann Rivera, who began her work with the district as a parent advocate on the Special Education Parent Advisory Committee, said she’s concerned about how students with high needs are treated in charter schools.
“Students with disabilities, students with high needs for whatever reason, are still our students and they deserve the same support as everyone else,” she said. “There’s really good charter schools who have equitable access and there’s charter schools who don’t and aren’t serving their students. That’s a really problematic place to be.”
PPA and Buffalo Collegiate both said they’re open to all students, but it’s true that the new schools aren’t educating many ELLs yet. One Buffalo Collegiate parent told WBFO she knows the school is the right choice for her son, but not her daughter, who has autism and whom she plans to keep in Buffalo public schools.
“We all know that charter schools have that issue that, if you have a kid with behavioral issues, this is not the good choice,” said Mariana Cole-Rivera, speaking while she bowled with both of her kids at a Buffalo Collegiate family night in July at the Kerns Avenue Bowling Center on Buffalo’s East Side.
Nearby, Pawloski passed his infant son around and students danced up to the bowling lanes to Bruno Mars and Cardi B. Sheila Williams, a longtime foster mom, was also there with some of her family. She’s enrolling her adopted foster daughter at Buffalo Collegiate this year after having a good experience with another foster child at PPA last year.
“I do what I do because I love kids,” she said. “That’s what I see inside these schools that I have brought my kids to—the care and love they give for kids, plus the education and what they’re offering them for their future, to have a brighter future.”
Other Buffalo Collegiate parents WBFO interviewed for this series were similarly pleased with the impact the new school has had on their children.
“He actually told me a few weeks ago of a book series that he wants to start reading from the start to the end because one of the books was one of the ones they read in school,” said Jessica Kraft, whose son Noah transferred to Buffalo Collegiate from Woodrow Wilson Elementary School in the Cheektowaga-Sloan Union Free School District.
“My jaw dropped that he wanted to read this series. I mean, I could barely even get him to read an article, like, on his favorite sport. And he loves reading now.”
Shantelle Patton’s daughter, Cadence, transferred from Buffalo PS #67 Discovery School—and she wasn’t happy about it, at first. But by last winter, “There were snow days where she was upset that there was no school, and that let me know that she was very happy and well-adjusted,” said Patton.
Patton also said she welcomes the chance she and her daughter have to impact Buffalo Collegiate as it continues to grow, adding a new grade level each year.
“It gives us the opportunity to build the school the way we want to see the school run,” she said.
That’s an opportunity several upcoming decisions by The State University of New York (SUNY) Charter Schools Institute and the New York State Board of Regents will determine whether or not other Buffalo families will get to have in the coming years.
On Aug. 21, the Buffalo school board unanimously voted to support a resolution opposing four new charter schools with pending applications to open in the city. The resolution said the applicants provided “minimal information” and had “much difficulty” answering questions from the board. It also cited the additional costs new charter schools would place on the district, in addition to the $133.9 million projected expense for charter schools during the 2019-20 academic year.
The Buffalo Board of Education previously approved a district-wide moratorium on charter schools in September 2017, shortly after PPA and Buffalo Collegiate were accredited. The current applications for new charters include three current BES fellows hoping to follow in Pawloski and Formato’s footsteps.
Accreditation decisions are expected from SUNY and the Board of Regents later this fall or early next year.