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Buffalo Schools make push to build career and vocational programs

Some students here and across the state soon could be spending less time in traditional reading and math classes, and more time learning how to apply those skills in career fields such as physical therapy and pharmacy.

That’s because educators both locally and statewide are trying to ramp up programs that teach students skills they can eventually transfer to a career, while at the same time helping them meet the standards the state requires for graduation.

After its programs came under scrutiny from state leaders earlier this year, officials in the Buffalo Public Schools are trying to build up the district’s career and vocational programs by seeking state certifications, looking for ways to accommodate more students and even expanding their offerings into younger grade levels.

At the state level, education officials want to expand New York’s regional Boards of Cooperative Educational Services, which for years have been the go-to programs for career and technical education.

“I think as people have looked at their graduation rates and seen what CTE programs can do for their kids, there has been more interest,” said Chuck Szuberla, assistant state commissioner who oversees the state’s career programs. “They see that for a lot of kids, they’re very interested and they find the programs very relevant.”

The push underscores a national trend toward career education as school districts struggle to improve students’ performance and better prepare them for the 21st century workforce.

One national study by the Gates Foundation reported that 81 percent of students who dropped out nationwide said that learning skills they could apply in the workforce might have encouraged them to graduate.

The issue of relevance is especially pressing in the state’s large urban districts, including Buffalo, where the most recent graduation rate verified by the state was about 47 percent, not including students who finished after completing summer courses.

Buffalo has offered a variety of career-focused programs for years, but those recently faced criticism for low enrollment and limited availability to students. Some of the programs were not certified by the state, and in many cases students did not pass their industry assessments.

Those issues at some schools prompted State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. to make an unprecedented mandate that students from two city schools be allowed to take classes at Erie 1 BOCES.

Now, the district is trying to address those issues by seeking state certifications and looking for ways to make its programs available to more students.

It is also looking to develop programs that introduce students to different careers in younger grade levels through partnerships with outside organizations.

“Our kids get it,” said Katherine Heinle, who oversees the Buffalo Public Schools’ career programs. “They have that ‘a ha’ moment where they see the connections.”

For example, students at School 53 recently worked with architects from the Buffalo Architecture Foundation to design and build model houses for an imaginary community on the moon through the Architecture + Education program.

Fourth-grade students studied environmental conditions on the moon, and then brainstormed how those factors might affect the construction of a building. They also used math skills and concepts such as scale to design their model homes.

The students’ projects will be on display at the CEPA Gallery beginning Friday and running through Jan. 24.

“It’s just astonishing what they have learned,” said teacher Danielle Popovich. “They’re able to see how what they’re learning can be applied to architecture.”

Not only did that get some of her students more interested in learning science, some even started thinking about their futures. “I like to build stuff with my Legos and draw stuff,” said 10-year-old Ju’Wan Andrews. “If I just drive down the street and see a house I built, that would be awesome.”