It’s nice to see that our educators are learning a thing or two. Against a backdrop of “failing” schools, sinking graduation rates and bottom-drilling test scores, Buffalo school officials this week finally changed the conversation. Burgard High School will next year – in a partnership with Alfred State College – become a career hub for advanced manufacturing. The five-year associate degree plan piggybacks on Burgard’s existing programs in auto mechanics, welding and computerized machining – and pipelines graduates into available jobs.
“If you want an advanced manufacturing career,” Principal Brian Wiesinger told me at Wednesday’ School Board meeting, “Burgard is the destination.”
Injecting creativity and pragmatism into the district’s withered vocational studies program will not remedy all the ills of Buffalo’s schools. But I think it will “save” some kids while supplying workers for about 100 local companies. These places need trained workers, Buffalo school kids will soon need jobs, and that marriage of practicality will start in the classrooms of Burgard.
It’s about time.
The program raises the status – and appeal – of Burgard, long labeled a “failing” school for its low graduation rate. The district also has plans for a Medical Campus high school and a “fine arts” elementary school. All of it gives parents reasons to send their kids to Buffalo schools, instead of running the other way.
Innovation hasn’t been a prime driver in city schools since then-Superintendent Eugene Reville defused racial tensions in the 1970s by crafting the magnet school program. The late pioneering educator understood that schools of specialization – such as arts, science and engineering – gave kids and parents reasons to buy in.
The Burgard program that prepares kids for locally available jobs is so pragmatic that it should have happened years ago. Instead, the dreams of many vocationally gifted kids have been dashed on the rocks of State Ed officials determined to force-feed virtually everyone a Regents diploma. At State Ed’s insistence more than a decade ago, Buffalo and other districts jettisoned the “local diploma” option. For many vocationally inclined kids, it roadblocked the path to high school graduation and meaningful work. I have heard numerous stories – some from my Buffalo teacher wife – of kids forced onto a Regents track who, tired of banging their heads against a too-high academic wall, either dropped out or acted up.
The new Burgard program doesn’t change State Ed’s bullheaded Regents diploma requirement. But it expands the vocational pathway for kids, leads to a two-year college degree and connects them to local jobs. What’s not to like?
Chris Sansone, head of the Buffalo Niagara Manufacturing Alliance, said, “There are companies today that are turning away work because they don’t have enough qualified candidates to fill the jobs. Workers are retiring, and there is no one to take their places.”
Buffalo schools finally will give more of a hand to kids who like to work with their hands. It makes sense, in a city buckling under the poverty load.
“Not everyone,” Sansone noted, “is cut out to go to college.”
The “one size fits all” college-track model undercuts too many Buffalo school kids – for no good reason. The last time I dropped my car at the shop, the labor rate for mechanics was about $80 an hour. The going rate for welders, plumbers and carpenters is right up there. These are skills that people can build a life around, buy a house and raise a family.
“Some of these kids coming out of college with English degrees,” cracked Sansone, “will be serving coffee to the kids who come out of this manufacturing program.”
You don’t have to convince Theo Irakoze or Kayleen Dupere Estes. The senior and junior are in the welding certificate track at Burgard – and wish that the new program had come soon enough for them.
“Welding was hard at first, but I love doing it,” Kayleen told me Thursday during a class break. “There’s a high demand for welders, and it’s a skill I’ll always have.”
She can take that to the bank. Literally.