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Education 'opened the door:' A lesson from growing up poor

Melodie Baker has accomplished a lot in her 35 years. The Bennett High School graduate earned a bachelor’s degree in public relations from Buffalo State College in 2005 before going on to earn a master’s degree in executive leadership in 2008.

Currently the director of education at the United Way of Buffalo & Erie County, she designs, implements and secures funding for evidence-based education programs. In 2014, she co-founded the Charter School of Inquiry, to build on an early learning program she had implemented earlier as assistant director at Bethel Head Start. She also recently received the Buffalo Niagara Partnership’s Athena Young Professional Leadership Award.

Through it all, she has raised five high-achieving children, now ages 8 to 18, and learned along the way that things won’t always be perfect when juggling a career with parenthood.

Q: You grew up in a close-knit family. What was your parents’ philosophy on education?

A: My parents both come from some pretty tough backgrounds. My dad was a carpenter and moved here from Texas to become an associate pastor. He really worked hard and set a high standard.

My parents motivated us, but my older sister is the one who really broke the glass ceiling. She was valedictorian, she went to Howard University and got two master’s degrees. For my sisters and I, it was, “Wow, we can achieve.” Through my sister’s work, and the work of my mom and dad, it was like, “Hard work paves the way.”

The one thing I’ve learned is that education is the greatest risk to poverty. It is the one thing that truly transcends just about any negative cycle. I made it my business to try to expand education opportunities for everybody. We were exceptionally poor, but education is what opened the door for us.

Q: How did you like Bennett High School?

A: It was a melting pot. You could be whoever you wanted to be. There were the kids who made poor decisions and there were the kids whose parents were attorneys and doctors. So every day you could choose what path you wanted, you could choose a very erudite direction or you could hang out with the kids who didn’t go to school. They had a law program that was like a school within a school. The kids there completely changed my direction in life and gave me a clear perspective on where I should go. I absolutely loved it.

Q: If you didn’t work in education, what would you be doing?

A: The work that I do has a lot to do with evidence-based programming, so I really enjoy doing quantitative analysis. I probably would’ve gone into a more technical field. And I always wanted to be a journalist. Education is perfect, though. There’s nothing better.

Q: How did you end up co-founding a charter school?

A: When I was assistant director at Bethel Head Start, Read to Succeed executive director Helene Kramer and I received a very competitive grant to implement early reading skills for our kids ages 2 through 5. The kids started the program about 5 months below their developmental age. After the program, they were 5 months ahead. Our minds were blown. These extremely high-risk kids were exceeding their middle-class peers.

But we found that, by first grade, much of what we had done had been neutralized. It was as if we had done nothing. It was very difficult for us to swallow. Helene and I got together with two other people to start a charter school that would take kids from this background, build on those early reading skills and have them reading well through third grade, which is a critical milestone. So we started researching and developed an inquiry-based school.

Q: You did all this with unpaid volunteers and using your own resources. What happened next?

A: The Buffalo Public Schools gave us their blessing. The traditionally divided board came together and said, “This is truly good. We’d love to partner with you.” We were shocked. Then we had our meeting with the state. They grilled us for three hours. At the very end, the woman leading the interview said, “I want you to know, a lot of us are familiar with the work you did with the Reading First program. You had tremendous results and we just want to congratulate you. And we hope that you will consider maybe creating that for a statewide model.” We were like “What? Wow!”

Q: The debate about public schools versus charter schools is very contentious and political.

A: In my current role, I really support public schools and charter schools and I do tread very carefully in my role as a founder. I have backed away from some of my duties at the charter school. I’ve worked very hard to be a neutral individual.

My husband is principal at a Buffalo school, and I’m very familiar with both sides. I think it’s nice for parents to have options. I don’t think it should be as contentious as it is. I think it stems from a place where a lot of people aren’t as familiar with charter schools or public education. I think there’s a lot of misinformation. I’m a huge advocate for public school and charter school. I think there needs to be both.

Q: You’ve managed to accomplish so much, all while having five kids. How do you do it?

A: I have a tremendous support system; my mother and father and my husband’s mother and father. We also have to have an amazing planning schedule because all of my kids play sports, some of them two and three sports at a time. They’re very involved in a lot of things. We don’t limit them whatsoever.

One of the things I had to come to grips with was, things aren’t always going to be perfect. At some point, you’re going to have to sacrifice something. Everybody has to. I might miss a band concert, but grandma, granddaddy, my husband – one of us will be there. But my kids know that I pursued my career and things that are important to me and they can do anything they want. If they want to have kids, they can do that. If they want to be a doctor, they can be a doctor. They can do both.

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