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At Buffalo Center for Arts and Technology, a refuge for city students

As interim superintendent of the Buffalo Public Schools, Amber Dixon made decisions that affected tens of thousands of children every day.

Today, as director of the Buffalo Center for Arts and Technology, her decisions might leave a mark on at best a few dozen at a time.

The number of students may be smaller, but the impact is significant.

The center, which occupies two renovated floors of the Artspace building on Main Street and opened in 2013, has a two-pronged mission: increase high school graduation rates through arts education and give unemployed and underemployed adults the training to find jobs in medical coding and pharmacy technical work.

“It’s a place that, when you walk into it, you see light, you feel hope, you see art, and your environment starts shaping your behaviors,” said Dixon, who became the center’s first director in 2012. “That’s why this facility was so critical to us. It really needed to represent taking control of your life, finding the tools that you need to get you through high school if you’re a teen, or to get you back into a workforce, that can pay you a wage that allows you to raise your family.”

In Buffalo, where the graduation rate for public school students hovers around 50 percent and 25 schools have entered receivership, it can be tough for students to find much good to say about their days.

For a small but growing number of students who participate in BCAT’s after-school arts programs and adults who enroll in its career-training programs, that is beginning to change.

The philosophy directly modeled on educator Bill Strickland’s Manchester Bidwell Corporation in Pittsburgh, is simple:

“It’s an economic model about poverty. We use the arts and we use workforce development,” Dixon said. “This is about eradicating poverty in a community.”

Two years into its mission, the center already is experiencing success. Of the approximately 130 high school students who have participated in its school-year and summer programs, 90 percent maintained passing averages, Dixon said.

Of the first class of graduates in its medical coding program, 100 percent are employed, though not all in coding, according to BCAT program director Stacey Watson.

The center is making a difference in students’ lives. And it is doing the same for Dixon.

Uplift through music

On weekday afternoons in the first-floor music room of BCAT, Eric Crittenden opens his hip-hop ensemble practice session with the same request.

“Tell me something good,” he says, determined to pry some positivity from his students.

The young musicians, who trickle into the center from some of Buffalo’s struggling schools, sit in a semicircle and search the ceiling for answers. They mention afternoon soccer games, future half-days, hot dogs they ate for lunch.

Alan Wilson, an East High School senior perched at the drum set and ready to lay down the beat for a Kendrick Lamar cover the group has been practicing, looks up in surprise.

“Alan,” Crittenden says. “Tell me something good.”

Wilson thinks for a beat, smiles and says, “I’m here.”

In a state-of-the-art recording studio on the main floor of the center, complete with acoustic wall padding, an editing station and a booming speaker system, Wilson and fellow BCAT student and poet Jefferson Manuel are laying down some tracks for a new mix tape they’re working on.

Wilson, whose father is a musician, has already mastered the art of mixing together a multilayered composition. He played through a pair of the multilayered tracks he’s working on, one based on his own creation and another inspired by “Uptown Funk.”

“Music has always been what I would call my first love, so when I found out about this program, I kind of jumped at the opportunity to be able to express myself,” Wilson said as he sat at the work station. “This program has definitely brought out, I guess you could say, my true colors. Not only musically, but personality-wise as well.”

Manuel, a Health Sciences Charter School senior who plans to attend Villa Maria College, said the center gives students the opportunity to pursue a path that’s not available to them in school.

“I’ve never been invested in anything else, like I’m not an athlete or anything like that,” he said, adding that his mother “is really happy for me. I think that’s the most important thing, that she sees me being happy and doing something I like to do.”

The sense of creative freedom that keeps Manuel and Wilson coming back to Crittenden’s hip-hop class and to the music studio every day extends to the center’s video and visual arts classes, as well.

In the digital studio, equipped with 14 iMac editing stations, Squeaky Wheel Education Director Kevin Kline runs a video production and editing class that draws on the work students do in other areas of the center. Students have produced individual and collaborative videos based on what they would do with a trillion dollars and how they can be agents of positive change in their communities.

The center is now the headquarters for Squeaky Wheel’s long-running Buffalo Youth Media Institute, one example of the collaborations it is establishing with arts organizations in the city.

Kline said the challenge for him and other instructors at BCAT is to make sure students are learning real-world skills without the challenging atmosphere and impersonal treatment they sometimes experience in their schools.

“The last thing they need or want is the same old, ‘I’m the teacher, you’re the student, you do what I tell you to do scenario,’ ” Kline said.

A lower-profile role

Dixon is a former boilermaker, construction worker and electrician who became a teacher in her late 30s. She quickly rose through the ranks of the city’s public school system.

Running BCAT was not something she envisioned doing as recently as two years ago.

She was appointed interim superintendent of Buffalo schools at a particularly difficult time in the district’s history.

“I became a vehicle for a very racist dialogue in this community,” she said.

When she was not selected for the job, the fact that she was passed over for an expensive hire from outside the district became “a lightning rod for racist rhetoric” from those who saw the selection of Dixon’s replacement as racially motivated.

This was difficult for Dixon to stomach, so she looked for other opportunities to improve the lives of city students.

Because of its focus on developing positive relationships between students and adults that she sees as missing from many Buffalo classrooms, the BCAT position resonated.

Even so, it’s clear Dixon misses the broader impact she had in the higher-profile role.

“The position is an incredibly stressful one. You spend 24 hours a day worrying about 45,000 kids and 7,000 adults. You don’t sleep until they’re home at night, and you check the paper every day to see who’s been shot,” she said. “But it’s wonderful. It’s wonderful because you get to say: Let’s try to build an institution that meets their needs.”

For Dixon and her eight staff members, BCAT is making a small but important dent in a citywide problem that has come to seem intractable.

In addition to classes in visual art, video and music, the center has two University at Buffalo social work graduate students on hand to address some of the problems students bring with them to the center.

“The kids that come to us are overcoming childhood trauma, neighborhood trauma, homelessness, poverty,” Dixon said.

“They walk in the door, they stamp their feet and roll their eyes and hate you, and 10 minutes later they run over and give you a hug and they love you,” she said.

“It’s who they are, so if you create an institution where there’s more opportunity for stomping your feet and saying ‘I hate you,’ that’s what you’re gonna get.”

At BCAT, opportunities for foot-stomping are limited. Students have to sign an honor code, and they’re held to specific expectations about their behavior and their work in class. But within that framework, they have autonomy to pursue the kinds of creative projects that brought them to the center in the first place.

Every element of the space has been engineered to make students feel at home and at ease. Light pours in through huge windows into the main lobby, the art studio and multimedia lab. Dixon had glass-free windows punched in the sides of her office so she can keep tabs on the activities. A communal kitchen space on the first floor was designed to encourage students to eat together, and to clean up their plates when they’re done.

Laughing about the meticulous planning that went into every element of the building, Crittenden said: “It’s family dinner, all the time.”