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New Health Sciences Charter School leader looks to build bridges

After almost a decade since its establishment, the Health Sciences Charter School welcomed a new member to its leadership last month.

Wendy Richards, the new head of school, assumed her role on July 1. She will welcome students for the new school year on Tuesday.

Richards, a North Tonawanda native, received her bachelor's degree in elementary and special education from Daemen College and her doctorate in educational leadership at D'Youville College. She has more than two decades of experience in education, including past roles as a special education teacher at Clarence High School, and assistant principal at Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts and Grover Cleveland High School.

As the new head of school, she plans to create a safer school environment and build stronger relationships with school partners to improve school facilities and programs.

The school Board of Trustees appointed Richards after completing a search process that included representatives from the student body, faculty, staff, parents and health care partners, said David Palmer, president emeritus of the board.

The board created the new position to restructure the leadership team and separate the responsibilities of the principal, Jaime Venning, who now will focus on academics, working with teachers and individual students. Richards will oversee community partnership, programming and budgetary concerns, said Jan Barrett, the director of special projects.

"A principal running a charter school oversees everything ... and honestly it's too much for one person," Barrett said. "So it was the board's decision to add this position and move into a new direction."

The school was created in 2009 in partnership with eight regional health care industry leaders, including Catholic Health, Erie County Medical Center and Independent Health, to prepare more students for careers in health sciences.  

Although the charter school is publicly funded and tuition-free, like other traditional public schools, it receives less money per pupil and does not receive facility funding, Richards said.

"So budget-wise, it is very challenging to pay for a building and still offer all the creative services for our students," she said.

Richards said it is her role as the new head of school to strengthen relationships with school partners, bring outside resources into the school and carefully budget finances.

"We think about nontraditional and creative ways for funding," Wendy Richards, the new head of school at the Health Sciences Charter School, says about the approach at the school, part of the Buffalo Public School system. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Q: What responsibilities will you serve as the head of school?

The number one responsibility is to help students feel safe, creating an environment free from bullying and a place where students don't have to worry about anything. Second would be taking a close look at the budget and how to use different facilities. For example, we purchased another building on 1291 Main St. and we are looking into putting in a gym and learning labs for more work-based learning and certification programs. For example, we want to provide a facility simulating hospital rooms. We are also working with local colleges to provide dual-credit for those classes.

Q: What are some challenges you faced since you started?

Every time you start a new position, there is a learning curve. However, it's nice that the board had separated the roles of the head of school from the principal, so in my role I can focus on community partnership and developing relationships. Some of the other challenges are learning about the history of the school and about the different community partners.

Q: What are some goals you plan to achieve?

This year is about giving students the opportunity to experience college. The school has started communications with different colleges, including Daemen College, Canisius College and Erie Community College. The approach might be different for different grades. For example, the ninth and 10th grades will visit college campuses, but the juniors and seniors can take online or on-campus college courses.

Another goal is to continue building our community partnerships so we can provide more opportunities, such as robust internships for students and more after-school clubs. For example, we plan on adding a Women in Engineering Club in our after-school program.

We are also continuing to increase our graduation rate. Last year, we were at 87 percent, and we are on track to be in the 80s again. We plan on offering credit recovery courses, individualized tutoring and a summer program for incoming freshmen to get them ready.

Q: What makes HSCS unique compared to other public schools?

We are a career-intact school that focuses on preparing students with robust internships and work-based learning opportunities. Also, it is easier for a charter school to build on student leaders and faculty based on student needs, unlike public schools, which have more bureaucracies.

In terms of funding, we don't get facility funding and our state funding for per-pupil allotment is not the same as Buffalo Public Schools because we get around two-fifths of the funding. Therefore, we think about nontraditional and creative ways for funding, such as working closely with community partners, that will help with organizing and bringing in speakers for specific programs, and applying for grants.

This school has a culture where our board members and partners are providing an opportunity for our students and interviewing those to teach professional skills. For example, the human resources department for Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center will visit our school and conduct mock interviews and teach students on ways to improve and how to dress appropriately.

Q: How many graduates pursue health-related careers?

Our first graduating class was in 2014, and they have graduated from college. And a number of them have been accepted to post-undergraduate programs and are going into pre-med at the University at Buffalo medical school. Others are pursuing nurse practitioner degrees.

We are also collecting that data and seeing that our students are staying in Western New York.

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