John Starkey drives his way down the streets of Buffalo’s West Side surrounding Lafayette High School, marveling at the neighborhood’s history and fabric.
There’s the new Rico’s Pincho Truck parked on Grant Street selling Puerto Rican food from the window. There’s International Preparatory School on the campus of Grover Cleveland High on Porter, where Hispanic students protested for bilingual education in New York’s high schools in the 1970s. Mom-and-pop stores opened by Hispanic families dot the neighborhoods. And, there’s Starkey’s home, on a street off Porter.
Starkey, who is 100 percent Irish, moved into the neighborhood filled with refugee and Hispanic families not long after being named principal of Lafayette late last year. He was one of Superintendent Kriner Cash’s first recruits from outside to turn around one of Buffalo’s struggling schools.
What he has come to conclude since arriving here is that many Hispanic and Puerto Rican families feel left out, even though the larger community has welcomed refugee families from around the world.
“For decades, we’ve really failed to integrate them into the population,” Starkey said of the Spanish-speaking community. “We need to create opportunities, or else they’ll be left out of the Buffalo Renaissance.”
Nowhere is this more evident than at Lafayette High, where most of Buffalo’s Puerto Rican students attend classes. The school consistently sits at the bottom of state rankings for student performance and graduates the lowest percentage of students in the city. Hispanic students there perform even lower.
While the district’s overall Hispanic graduation rate is 48 percent, just 14 percent of Hispanic students at Lafayette graduated over the past three years.
In 2015, the most recent data available from the state, the district’s four-year graduation rate for all students was 61 percent and 50 percent for Hispanic students. That compared with a 22 percent Hispanic graduation rate at Lafayette.
Starkey’s goal is not only to transform the school into a success story, but also to reach out to the Hispanic community, address the needs of their children and motivate them to strive toward higher goals.
And in the process, Starkey is expected to play a key role resetting the trajectory of the long-struggling district. Strong principals are critical to the success of any school, especially one like Lafayette that serves so many students who face difficult challenges.
“Our whole community, we’re talking about what the refugee communities are bringing, and they’re bringing a lot,” Starkey said. “But we can’t just forget about 35,000 people in our city and thousands of kids in our school system.”
Engaging Hispanic students
Lafayette High School’s tower has stood tall over the West Side since the school opened in 1903. Now it shows its wear, the paint weathered from a century of transitions.
Over 113 years, the school has gone from gaslight to Internet. From new school to national landmark. From one where English and Italian flourished to one with many languages from Asian and African countries.
Lafayette also has gone from being one of the best performing Buffalo schools in the 1960s to one of the worst.
Starkey arrived expecting violence, disheartened teachers and disorganization, a common perception of the school. But that is not what Starkey said he found. The school wasn’t violent, teachers cared and it was organized.
That being said, some of the Hispanic community’s perceptions of the school – mainly that Hispanic students weren’t graduating – proved true.
Not only was the three-year average graduation rate for Latino students stalled at 14 percent – compared to the 19 percent overall at Lafayette – but just 1 percent of the Hispanic special education students graduated this year. Not a single male student of Puerto Rican descent walked across the stage at graduation last year, and only a handful did so this past June, school officials said.
The school is composed of roughly 50 percent refugee students and 50 percent Hispanic students. This brings two special challenges, school officials said.
Students from refugee families often arrive with a sense of hope but an interrupted education. An example might be a student from the Thailand/Burma border who didn’t go to school for the two years he or she was in a refugee camp.
Puerto Rican students face different problems. Both while on the island and in Buffalo, their hurdles include poverty, teen pregnancy, post-traumatic stress, gangs and drugs. So, when they get to school, sitting and reading a textbook is not always their top priority.
Education is not at the top of the priority list for survival for many of these families, Starkey said.
“For students who are living in difficult circumstances, and, coupled with the fact that some of their parents have had negative experiences with education ... you kind of create this perfect storm of students who can feel very disconnected from school and from society,” he said.
Push to graduate
Starkey pulls alongside the curb of an apartment complex on Busti Avenue on a summer afternoon.
Inside, Stefani Rivera’s eyes are glued to the Food Network, which she watches continuously for cooking inspiration.
The 17-year-old makes many dishes like papas loca – a heap of fries, meat, cheese, mayonnaise, mustard and bacon. Someday, she says, she will open a restaurant with all sorts of food.
Right now, though, she’s a teenage mother and soon-to-be 11th grader.
Stefani’s daughter, named after her brother who died a few years ago, is seven months old, almost eight.
Like many other Puerto Rican families, the Riveras’ journey to Buffalo was not a straight path. The family moved from the island to Orlando, Fla., where they lived for eight months in 2011, and then back to the island for a few years until 2014, when her mom’s friend persuaded the family to come to Buffalo.
In the tradition of many refugees, immigrants and Puerto Ricans before them, they came for a better life. On the island, they lived in a one-room duplex connected to that of Stefani’s grandmother. They didn’t have a lot of money.
Jobs, even with Stefani’s mother’s degree in tourism, were hard to come by. They didn’t feel safe. Domestic and street violence affected their day-to-day lives.
Her mother tears up when she speaks about Buffalo.
“I got the help here to get on my feet,” she said with Starkey translating. “It feels calm here. I have peace of mind here.”
Stefani’s life still isn’t easy. She has a difficult time focusing on school because she’s thinking about her daughter. She can’t spend time with friends after school because she needs to get home to see her.
If it weren’t for her mother, Stefani would have to drop out of school to take care of her child.
But she enjoys school in Buffalo, especially the salsa team that began last year.
That keeps her coming back, as she plans to do for the next two years.
“Oh yeah,” she says without a hint of doubt. “I’m going to graduate.”
On a Tuesday afternoon at Ranchos Latin Restaurant, Starkey is running late after a Puerto Rican family showed up at the school unexpectedly, wanting to know what the new school was going to offer their daughter. And then there were more last-minute calls dealing with hiring and other new school business. Finally, he gets a chance to order and sit down.
Starkey speaks with carefully chosen words and a genuine, albeit tired, smile. But he never glosses over details about the school.
In November, the school district decided to redesign its worst performing schools, Lafeytte included. This fall, it will reopen with a new focus as the Lafayette International Community High School and offer a “Newcomer’s Academy.”
Starkey said his vision of the new school will feature more clubs and activities, more of a project-based rather than test-focused curriculum. There will be more interdisciplinary work and integrating students who are at different English speaking abilities.
Starkey has been working in education, specifically bilingual education, for 18 years, but it happened by accident. Even though education was the family business – his parents, sister and aunt were all teachers – it wasn’t until Starkey was in the 11th grade at Amherst High School and mentored an elementary school student with “all sorts of problems” that he took his first step down that same path.
Starkey thought to himself: “If I can make money doing something like this, having fun and reaching kids who have been hard to reach, that’s gratifying and that gives me a career.”
But when it came to Spanish, Starkey was a failure. He failed his Spanish class in high school. And when he went to play football at SUNY Brockport, he failed two more Spanish courses. Then he met a teacher who made learning Spanish fun. The teacher’s belief in Starkey propelled him to study for a year in Spain. He came home fluent in the language.
He then went to Buffalo State College and graduated in 1998. From there, he taught children of migrant workers at Newburgh Junior High School in the Hudson Valley, and then moved to New York City to teach at International High School at LaGuardia, where he taught for eight years before becoming principal. The school is the oldest and most high-profile school in the International Network for Public Schools, a nonprofit that supports 22 international high schools, mainly in the New York City area, and helped create new programs in seven other schools, including Lafayette.
While he was principal of the International High School in Queens, four-year graduation rates stayed at 80 percent and six-year rates reached 90 percent. A large percentage of those students went on to college, too, and were still there 18 months later.
He was principal of two high schools in the South Bronx for a year when the job at Lafayette opened up.
“I would’ve liked to have stayed there to see what we could’ve done to continue to improve the two schools there, but the Lafayette position came calling,” he said. “I had to get back to Buffalo.”
After a full day of interviewing teachers for Lafayette and a meeting about the Puerto Rican Hispanic Day Parade, Starkey puts on his gym clothes. The Belle Center on Maryland Street regularly holds basketball nights, and Starkey is ready to face off on one side of the basketball court.
Of the nine boys running around the gym floor, five are in school. Two graduated, two dropped out. Five have jobs, most at the McDonald’s around the corner. All are from Puerto Rico.
They all understand the importance of diplomas in the United States. But what students always ask about and what they need are jobs.
Although Starkey knows the difficulties his Hispanic students face, he doesn’t believe in lowering expectations. He wants each student to pursue some form of higher education, whether a four-year-institution or a technical school.
“One thing I don’t find acceptable is when people say, ‘Not everyone is cut out for college,’ ” he said. “They’re saying don’t place this burden on a child, expecting them to either be a college graduate or feel like a failure. But I also feel like the failure is really on all of us as a community for not holding those students to high expectations.”
Some students say the Regents exams are the hardest part of their education. Starkey thinks there’s more to it.
“I don’t think we as a community ... have done enough to really hold those students to a very high expectation and create systems of support to reach those high goals,” he said.
This often means getting Hispanic students not only to aspire to graduation, but to aspire to college and a good job.
At basketball night, Starkey handed out applications for Rodriguez Construction Co., which is purposefully hiring multilingual people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Starkey handed an application to Luis Rodriguez. The 24-year-old grew up in the mountains and banana groves near Maunabo, Puerto Rico. He came to Buffalo as a youngster in the fifth grade, and then returned to the island again for four more years. Then in November 2009, he was back in Buffalo, with only half of his senior year left. He arrived at Lafayette knowing no one, feeling like “a fish out of water,” and teachers were convinced he had too much to catch up to graduate on time.
Rodriguez took 12 classes and the Regents exam in six months. By the time graduation rolled around in June, he crossed the stage with an 85 percent grade average.
Still, Rodriguez regrets not taking his time through school and going to college.
Now, after years of working as a manager at Family Dollar, he is looking for a new job.
“Everybody says they want to enjoy the job and do something they love,” he said. “I just want to be comfortable.”
Yet every job application requires experience, so his six years of experience in retail doesn’t help. He doesn’t lack for skills. He’s done construction work, cut hair, plays drums at a church.
“Pretty much anything you can throw at me, I can do it,” he said.
Rodriguez says the same goes for the other boys in the gym. They might not speak English well or perform well on a test or job application written in English, but they’re smart. They work hard.
“Learning is not a problem for them,” he said. “Show them how to do it, and they can do it.”
They just need a model and the opportunity to prove it.
On the way to Rivera’s home, Starkey and his two daughters spot Rico’s Pincho Place food truck. He pulls his black Cadillac alongside the curb, and the two girls go bounding out.
There, Starkey leans into the window of the food truck, with its paradise-themed art and humming motor, and orders pinchos and pina coladas (sans alcohol, of course) for his two daughters and a lobster pastelillo for himself.
Starkey takes his two daughters – Marisol, 5, and Mialuz, 3 – on many of his home visits.
Their mother is Puerto Rican, and their first language is Spanish. Starkey, the full-blooded Irishman from Amherst, credits his police officer grandfather for giving him a passion for the community and his silverware salesman grandfather for his persistence.
This passion and persistence propels him to community meetings and to arrange partnerships with local colleges like SUNY Buffalo State and businesses like Zoom Copy to mentor and teach students that they can achieve more.
He believes it is the responsibility of the community – himself included – to help educate and empower Hispanic students.
One example is when he referred students to the Puerto Rican Hispanic Day Parade’s Grand Marshal program, a scholarship for male, Hispanic soon-to-be high school graduates. After giving applications to students, some went to the interview wearing a T-shirt and backward baseball cap.
“We have to look at ourselves and ask, ‘How is it that kid thought it was OK?’ ” he said. “I’m the one who taught him about the scholarship, so I have to also think about my own assumptions … I failed that student.”
But Starkey said he gets his energy from the parents of his students. The similarities between their children and his two daughters are not lost on him.
“I want there to be a really good program for language learners so that kids like them ... who are learning English, can have a really high-quality education,” he said. “Maybe my kids were born with more opportunity and parents with a higher education, a stable family, but really, they are no different than any of the kids at Lafayette.”