You may have noticed people knocking on doors in Buffalo this summer to spread the word about the city's new community schools.
The outreach continues a big push that began last year to open 13 Buffalo schools after hours so kids, parents and the entire neighborhood could take a computer course, enjoy a cooking class, learn African history, swim, garden or sit down together for a meal – all free of charge.
And two more Buffalo schools will become community schools this year.
Paid for with $15.5 million in state money – up from $12.5 million last year – the district will designate North Park and Frank Sedita as two new community schools, bringing the number to 15.
By the time school ended in June, the 13 community schools had:
- Offered more than 50 programs and dozens more services on Saturdays and weekday evenings.
- Hosted more than 22,000 visitors – a number school officials want to double in the coming year.
- Served up some 41,000 meals, including breakfast and lunch on Saturdays, when the programs were most popular.
- Added more hours on the West Side, where attendance was highest.
But the district wants to be more aggressive spreading the word – hence the summer door-to-door campaign. It also intends to better tailor the programs to meet the different needs in different neighborhoods.
Those were some of the lessons Buffalo learned from the first year of its community schools initiative, which has quickly become a centerpiece of the efforts to improve the impoverished urban district and reach out to its neediest families. More than half the children in Buffalo – 54 percent – lived in poverty in 2015, according to U.S. Census estimates released last year.
The state-funded effort uses specific schools in poor districts to provide students and their families with a wide range of after-hour services – enrichment, training, health care and more.
It’s all based on the premise that the extra support and parent engagement outside the classroom will produce better academic results in the classroom.
But will it work?
“We all have the hunch that when parents are more involved, kids do better in school,” said David Mauricio, chief of strategic alignment and innovation for the district. “Now, we’re actually building a system that we’re going to be able to quantify that.”
Overall, Mauricio said, the first year was a good start, but the district needs to do better at the 13 designated community schools. Those schools are Lafayette, West Hertel and Herman Badillo on the West Side; East, Hamlin Park, Futures, Harvey Austin and Lovejoy Discovery on the East Side; Bennett, Highgate Heights and Westminster Community Charter School in the Northeast; and South Park and Southside in South Buffalo.
While there are limited offerings in the summer, the initiative ramps up again during the school year when the nine designated elementary schools stay open an additional two hours for after-school programs. The four high schools are open evenings for two hours twice a week and also have a center for parents to get help.
All 13 schools are open three hours on Saturdays at least twice a month.
The new venture has had some challenges.
Parent engagement, in general, has traditionally been an issue throughout the district, and the notion that the community-school services are free to the public can take a little convincing.
The public, meanwhile, is accustomed to relatively limited access to schools, so being welcomed is somewhat of a change.
“We have to change the mindset that the building is structured only for parents and you only come to school if there’s a problem or if there’s an auditorium activity going on or it’s report card night,” Mauricio said.
“Now,” he said, “we’re getting beyond those things and we’re saying, ‘This is a place of learning that doesn’t end at 3 o’clock.' ”
Reaction to the new initiative from parent leaders has been positive.
“Way better than could or should have been expected,” said Samuel L. Radford, president of the District Parent Coordinating Counsel.
Larry Scott, co-chairman of the Buffalo Parent-Teacher Organization, agreed.
“We host our meetings at East on Saturday mornings and we used to come into an empty and quiet building, sometimes locked when we arrived,” Scott said.
“Now,” he said, “we enter an open and energized building with a welcoming staff and a variety of education and enrichment for adults and children.”
Some of the highlights:
Saturdays are more popular. Attendance for community school activities totaled 22,612, which includes repeat visitors. More than three-quarters of those who took part attended programs on Saturday.
Lafayette led the way with 3,589 visitors, largely because so many people were showing up that the district, by winter, agreed to open Lafayette every Saturday instead of just twice a month.
It's a family affair. Programs ranged from African history club to Zumba, but the district quickly realized it needed to change course after sending kids off to one end of the building and their parents to another.
“They didn’t want their son and daughter going to the library or computer lab on their own,” Mauricio said. “They wanted to go with them and learn together.”
“We adapted immediately because that’s what the community wants,” he said.
Nighttime's not the right time. Of the 22,000 visitors to community school activities, only about one in 10 attended a weekday evening program.
“One of the areas we didn’t do as well in was our adult evening programs,” Mauricio said.
Adult courses – which covered topics like tax preparation, extreme couponing and first-time home buying – attracted 1,211 people to Lafayette and 1,203 to South Park, while appealing to just 93 people at East and 81 at Bennett, according to district numbers.
Evening hours can be tough for parents, and outreach was part of the problem, Mauricio said. The district also has to make sure it is offering programs that address family wants and needs, which vary from neighborhood to neighborhood.
“What we found on the West Side was that there was huge engagement from our English-language-learning families,” Mauricio said. “We did citizenship courses. We did English as a second language courses. We hit the right note.”
Parent centers open to all. Each of the four high school sites includes a center, open during the school day and on Saturdays, that serves as a one-stop shop for elementary or high school parents to find assistance when faced with a problem – any problem.
“They can go in for any reason at all,” Mauricio said. “If they’re being evicted or if they have housing issues or employment issues, we will refer them."
“That’s the word we haven’t gotten out well enough,” he said, “and that’s something we’re working on this year.”
While Bennett and East had trouble attracting people to evening programs, it was just the opposite for their parent centers. Bennett had 562 visitors to its parent center and East had 1,229, the highest attendance among the four.