Cleaning up the region’s waterways has already proven to be a boost for Buffalo.
Think Canalside, or kayaking the Buffalo River, or new apartments on Ohio Street.
But can this waterfront resurgence help turn around a Buffalo high school?
That’s the hope for Riverside Institute of Technology on Ontario Street along the Niagara River, where this year’s incoming freshmen were introduced to a revamped Riverside geared toward the “Blue Economy.”
Buffalo’s developing waterfront and nearby Niagara Falls will be a real-life laboratory to learn about the business of travel and tourism linked to the Great Lakes and Niagara River.
Students will monitor water quality and study aquatic life in and around the Buffalo region.
They’ll learn carpentry skills while building boats.
“That engages them,” school Principal David Hills said of the new program, “not only for what they’re doing now, but how it connects to future industry.”
The Riverside redesign continues the district experiment to overhaul some of Buffalo’s underperforming schools, while trying to provide more high-quality high school options for city students. Besides creating academic programs that students find interesting, the district wants to align the program with emerging jobs in the local economy.
It will be a challenge.
Back to the future
Riverside, which dates back to 1930, had a graduation rate of 36 percent in 2016, one of the lowest among Buffalo's high schools.
Its persistently poor academic performance put it on the state's receivership list, making it a candidate to be taken over by an outside entity if the district hadn't already decided the "old" Riverside would be phased out over the next two years. Only a junior and senior class remain.
Meanwhile, a "new" Riverside was phased in this year based on the idea of training students for an economy fueled by the restoration of the region's fresh water system. An inaugural class of 98 students was ushered in this fall marking the start of "Riverside Academy." They occupy the third floor of the building.
"In many ways, it's an extremely old concept," said Susan McCartney, advisor to the provost for economic development at SUNY Buffalo State, Riverside's main partner.
"Buffalo was built on the Blue Economy," McCartney said. "Buffalo was a completely water-based economy and I think the evidence is there that Buffalo's future is so intertwined with maximizing and respecting that water resource. So for our students to be on that side of the opportunity, we think is very beneficial."
The students are introduced to the Blue Economy in their first year, visiting locations along the waterfront to foster classroom discussion on commercial development, water quality and ecotourism. They've already been out, for example, taking water samples, which they brought back to the classroom for testing.
As the students move through high school, they can choose an area of study: aquaculture ecology and conservation, ecotourism and entrepreneurship, or health and wellness.
By graduation, they should have a good understanding about the scarcity of water on Earth and the importance of protecting it for future generations.
"You always need water," said Common Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr., whose North District includes Riverside.
Golombek and some of his constituents were concerned the high school was going to be closed or taken over by a charter school. But Golombek, who attended Riverside and remembers sitting in class staring out the window at the Niagara River, likes the new program.
So does Miguel Medina.
Grabbing kids' interest
The program caught Medina's attention when the freshman was first considering high schools.
“When I saw we were doing hands-on, interactive stuff, I said, ‘That sounds cool,’” said Miguel, 15.
It's better than he expected.
It beats expectations for Nevaeh Rodriguez, too.
“To be honest, Riverside was my last choice,” said Nevaeh, 14. “I thought this was a bad school. All I heard was that there was a lot of fights, but there’s not.”
“It’s calm,” she said, “Our principal is good and I like what they have to offer.”
The partnership with Buffalo State provides the high school with help designing the curriculum, coordinating enrichment opportunities outside the classroom and access to the college's Great Lakes Center, which specializes in the ecology of the Great Lakes and its tributaries.
Also on board is Riverside's neighbor, Buffalo Maritime Center, a non-profit that teaches students wooden boat building after school.
"As the partnership grows, we hope to expand that time so that kids can actually get credit," said Brian Trzeciak, director of Buffalo Maritime Center.
For years, he said, there’s been a movement away from teaching kids a trade and vocational skills.
“But with the help of Buffalo schools,” Trzeciak said, “that’s coming back.”
In fact, at the start of the year, Nevaeh had planned to transfer out of Riverside as soon as she could.
But she's had a change of heart.
“I started to like it,” she said. “I don’t want to change schools no more.”