The Bison Children’s Scholarship Fund was formed in 1995, after Chris Jacobs, now a Republican state senator from Buffalo, was inspired by reading about a scholarship program for inner-city youths in Indianapolis.
Jacobs wanted to do something similar for Buffalo Niagara. He discussed the idea with Paul D. Bauer, a food industry executive, and Thomas R. Beecher Jr., an attorney with Phillips Lytle. They founded the BISON Fund – which stands for Buffalo Inner-City Scholarship Opportunity Network – and the seeds they planted 25 years ago have grown into a towering achievement.
In its first year, the fund provided about 200 scholarships for the families of students at private or parochial schools, in grades kindergarten through eighth grade.
In the 2019-20 school year, 1,900 youngsters are receiving scholarships to attend more than 80 schools in the eight counties of Western New York. About 70% of the schools are Catholic-affiliated. The recipients now include nearly 100 high school students, a new feature for the fund.
Every household receiving aid from the BISON Fund is classified as low-income. The scholarships are not full rides. Every family must contribute to their child’s tuition, to accompany the aid they receive.
“We were founded on the belief that neither income nor ZIP code should be an obstacle to quality education,” Amy Popadick , executive director of the BISON Fund, told The News.
Families wishing for a scholarship apply to the fund, with the winners chosen by lottery. Popadick said more than 1,000 students are on a waiting list.
“We could double our program if we had the funding to,” she said.
The BISON Fund receives no government grants. It relies on funding from the Children’s Scholarship Fund, a national organization, as well as the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, the John R. Oishei Foundation and gifts from private donors.
“The average family contribution is about $1,700,” Popadick said. “So these families are really gutting it out for a chance to break the cycle of poverty for their kids.”
Jacobs said that the way the scholarships are set up attracts parents who are particularly motivated and involved.
“What we’ve found is the fact that they’re being empowered with choice, the fact that they’re required to have some skin in the game, it ends up drawing parents to be more involved, engaged and giving them more of an ownership in their children’s education,” Jacobs said.
The BISON Fund tracks the academic progress of its students once they move on to high school or college. The results are impressive.
The BISON class that graduated eighth grade in 2015 saw 97% of its students graduate high school on time, Popadick said. And 91% enrolled in a two- or four-year college.
The fund has come a long way in its first quarter-century. Let’s hope it is still helping families 100 years from now.