With new high-tech solar and LED lighting manufacturers coming to Riverbend, on top of the other biotech and infotech firms already here or on the way, it's clear that a new Buffalo is being created.
The only question is whether it will look like the old Buffalo when the racial demographics of this new-wave workforce are tallied a decade from now.
According to data pulled together by the Level Playing Field Institute, an Oakland, Calif., nonprofit trying to eliminate disparities in the STEM fields, African-Americans and Hispanics make up only 9 percent of the science and engineering workforce despite constituting 29 percent of the population.
The numbers are even worse for black males in science, technology, engineering and math. The institute found that black males earn only about 3 percent of all science and engineering college degrees, and represent just 2 percent of our science and engineering workforce and 1 percent of STEM faculty.
Those numbers resonate in Buffalo, where the high school graduation for black males always lags that of the district as a whole. And before anyone gets giddy over the 8-point jump in the 2013 graduation rate – to 56 percent – keep in mind it was 57 percent in 2009. It rises and falls, roller-coaster fashion, from year to year in a district with more failing schools than good ones, and where blacks and Hispanics make up more than two-thirds of the enrollment.
All of which raises sobering questions – for parents, teachers, students and the business community – about who will benefit from Buffalo's high-tech mini-boom. If we can't prepare what Level Playing Field calls this “large pool of untapped talent,” these kids will be left behind, and drag down Buffalo Niagara's economy in the process.
One solution is addressing what the institute calls “cultural incongruity” between home and school, a particular issue here where the teaching staff is predominantly white and suburban.
That doesn't mean teachers must share a kid's background, noted Allison Scott, Level Playing Field's director of research and evaluation. It just requires educating themselves on a student's culture and tailoring instruction to make it relevant.
As an example, when teachers asked Oakland students to brainstorm critical issues in their community, violence was cited. So one student in computer science class came up with an app to find the safest route home based on crime statistics. That approach made computer science “relevant to their everyday lives,” Scott said.
Another key is using field trips and bringing in experts to expose students to industry role models who share their background, which the institute does with a summer program that Scott calls “a really powerful intervention.”
Buffalo-area Engineering Awareness for Minorities runs a similar summer session, which starts Monday for about 100 students. BEAM also runs a Saturday program during the school year.
But such outside efforts, while important, reach only a couple hundred kids a year at best. They can't substitute for a Buffalo Public Schools system with everyone on the same page about dispelling stereotypes, setting expectations and providing resources equitably. Then thousands of kids of color could reap those benefits year-round.
If the new School Board seated this week doesn't figure out how to accomplish that, the new Buffalo will look just like the old Buffalo – only more so.