Buffalo, Falls districts talk of trying public program
More than 1,200 students in Buffalo are considered homeless. Some students have long suspension records and immediate family members behind bars. Some don’t get regular meals, much less regular guidance from a caring adult outside of school. Similar circumstances plague many students in the Niagara Falls.
The question of how to pull these children from the path of failure has led School Board members in both cities to suggest that they be educated away from home.
They want to create public boarding schools.
“At some point, somebody has to address this problem, and it’s not going to get addressed by changing the parents at the home,” said Buffalo School Board member Carl P. Paladino, who has raised the issue for years and brought the matter back before the board Wednesday.
“It’s what’s needed,” echoed Niagara Falls School Board member Vincent A. “Jimmy” Cancemi. “I would love to see it happen.”
It has happened elsewhere. The SEED Foundation opened its first college-preparatory public boarding school in Washington, D.C., in 1998, and has since opened two more, one in Baltimore and one in Miami. The foundation hopes to open another in Cleveland.
These schools enroll students in sixth grade and keep them through 12th grade. They stay in boarding school from Sunday night to Friday afternoon, when they return home. Ninety percent of the students graduate from high school, and 82 percent immediately enroll in college.
But these schools aren’t expanding rapidly. They require special state legislation and special funding. And they are expensive to run. It costs between $28,000 and $30,000 per student to keep the schools going, according to the SEED Foundation.
None of that is stopping School Board members such as Paladino and Patti Bowers Pierce in Buffalo from suggesting boarding schools as a possible solution for Buffalo’s most vulnerable students.
It’s not enough to keep pointing at the failure of parents to provide proper educational support for their children, Paladino said.
“Fine, we blame the parents; that does a lot,” he said. “It’s about time we talked about solutions instead of sitting there pointing the finger.”
Paladino submitted a board proposal Wednesday night that would create a special committee to examine at how Buffalo might fund and open a SEED school, the first of its kind in New York State, funded as a demonstration project by the state Education Department. His resolution will be taken up as a committee item.
Pierce, an investigator for the Erie County District Attorney’s Office, said she is in and out of homes every day, dealing with families in crisis where it’s apparent that a child needs more support than their families have to give.
“Why not throw a SEED school into the mix?” she said.
Nicholas S. Vilardo, vice president for the Niagara Falls School Board, said he also wants to make it a priority for his board to look into this type of school.
“We have smart kids. We have good students,” he said. “They just need the right environment to succeed.”
Rajiv Vinnakota, SEED’s co-founder and CEO, called SEED schools a place where struggling students can achieve their “full potential” despite their troubled backgrounds or difficult family circumstances.
“SEED isn’t just a school,” he said in a statement to The Buffalo News. “We’re a holistic model that brings together different kinds of services – housing, educational support, social service support and counseling. We bring that together under one roof to help children to succeed and to graduate college.”
But he acknowledged that starting such a school can be difficult and cumbersome.
“Opening a public boarding school is a complex process that involves long-term commitments from a diverse group of stakeholders – the most important of which are the communities it will serve,” he said. “Starting a SEED school requires public investment in the boarding program and private investment in building the campus and growing the school. And, most importantly for long-term sustainability, it requires that every classroom and dorm be led by an exceptional educator.”
Not everyone agrees that public boarding schools are worthy of the Buffalo district’s time and energy. Arlee Daniels Jr., coordinator for Stop the Violence Coalition’s GED and Youth Intervention Program, said there are many other intermediate steps the district can take to help city students at risk of failure.
Mentorship programs that put caring adults in students’ lives are one example, as is greater access to vocational and career programs, he said.
“Look at those options first,” he said.
Pierce, however, said there’s nothing wrong with looking at a whole portfolio of educational options for Buffalo’s children.
“This is certainly not a cure-all,” she said of SEED schools. “There are a lot of ideas out there.”