School Choice & Charters

In Buffalo, Opening Doors for the Overlooked

By Vaishali Honawar — May 22, 2007 8 min read
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Sylvie Bizimungu, left, and Olivia Cox listen to a question during a match at the National Science Bowl, held last month at the National 4-H Youth Conference Center in Chevy Chase, Md. The all-girls team is an inspiration to other Buffalo Prep Students.

For the first time in the 17-year history of the National Science Bowl, an all-black girls’ team made it into the finals this spring. Three of the five members of that high school team are products of Buffalo Prep.

Housed at the University of Buffalo, the program identifies disadvantaged but talented minority children, places them in academic-enrichment classes, and then finds them spots at private schools and a more selective public high school in the area to complete their precollegiate careers.

In addition to the accelerated courses, the program ingrains a strong academic ethic and offers a supportive atmosphere in which students are immediately embraced by a community of staff members, teachers, and alumni.

Academics and Etiquette

Andrea Finley, right, consoles Sylvie Bizimungu, as they wait with Olivia Cox for their next match.

“We do a lot of hand-holding, working through teen issues and school environments. We make sure that they take the kinds of classes they need to be taking,” said Marcia O’Neil-White, the program’s executive director. “We have a family atmosphere here.”

A big ingredient of Buffalo Prep’s winning formula is the 15 “partner” high schools, all of them private. They offer a combined $350,000 in annual scholarships. Some students have also been admitted to City Honors School, a highly selective public magnet school.

“At Buffalo Prep, there are a lot of late nights, a lot of homework,” said Sylvie Bizimungu, 18, an émigré from Rwanda who took part in the science competition, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. “But that’s just how it is. Teachers aren’t going to ask you if you’re overworked. … It just gets you ready.”

On a regular school day, students start trickling into the white, single-story building on the university’s south campus that is home to Buffalo Prep at around 4 p.m. For many, the university, which is close to the border with Amherst, N.Y., is a long subway or bus trip from their schools.

There are 8th graders here, part of Buffalo Prep’s Secondary Prep program, and some high schoolers, who are in Graduate Prep. The 8th graders immediately congregate in a classroom with English teacher Marcus Deveso.

The Buffalo team members greet their opponents at the science bowl before a match.

Most students are here at least twice a week, including Saturdays, staying well past 8 p.m., until it’s time to go home and dive into homework.

Under the eye of program director Crystal Austin-Seymore, or “Mother Crystal” as some of the children half-teasingly call her, students are drilled on the importance of etiquette and are forbidden to use profanities and other impolite language. So strong is the influence that as alumnus Aharon Sailor explains the prohibitions while standing in the building, he refuses to utter the words “shut up.”

And while most teenagers might find the idea of school after school outrageous, the students here appear to take it in cheerful stride, teasing each other and joking with Mr. Deveso as he breaks them into smaller groups so they can work on preparing thesis statements for the 10-page papers they will soon write.

Many participants come from homes that find it hard to make ends meet, let alone send a child to a private school. Some students come from immigrant families that speak English rarely, if at all.

It is also a challenge to keep teenagers focused on academic success when they’d rather have fun. “They become alienated from friends, teased for going to school all the time. Siblings are jealous,” Mr. Deveso said. “They go through a lot emotionally.”

Three Levels

The program, based on New York City’s Prep for Prep, has three levels. Primary Prep, for 6th graders, offers classes for six weeks over the summer. In addition to classes in the core subjects of math, science, language arts, and social studies, they attend workshops on hygiene, dance, music, Internet research, and the visual arts. Some of those students will return in the 8th grade for the next stage of Buffalo Prep.

Students pay a $20 weekly fee to attend Primary Prep. No fee is assessed, however, to attend Secondary Prep, a 14-month program that begins immediately after the 7th grade ends. Students in the secondary-level program learn test-taking strategies, effective note-taking, and public speaking in addition to intensive training in the core subjects.

Secondary Prep students automatically move on to Graduate Prep, where they take an SAT-preparation course, attend a workshop on how to prepare a college-application essay, and get help from a financial-aid adviser in filling out federal student-aid forms. Buffalo Prep also organizes in-house college seminars and schedules college tours.

After students start attending private schools on scholarships, staff members and volunteers regularly visit the schools and keep themselves updated on the students’ progress. If they appear to be in any trouble, academic or personal, everyone rallies round to help.

Principal William Kresse of City Honors High School, an International Baccalaureate public magnet program, finds such support for participants at his school invaluable.

Some of the students, while highly talented, do not come from the most challenging elementary schools, he said. “They get into an environment where the other students are very talented, and they panic,” he said. “They feel they don’t belong.”

“Very few people have the secret to how to make it easy so [the students] don’t panic, and Buffalo Prep has the answer to that,” Mr. Kresse said. “The formula they’ve established over the years has been very successful.”

Creating a Mind-Set

Even the location of the program is intended to instill in students a sense of higher achievement. While Primary Prep is held at one of the partner schools, Secondary and Graduate Prep are held on the university campus.

Just being on campus, said Ms. O’Neil-White, puts the students in the correct mind-set of wanting to succeed.

Sylvie Bizimungu, left, and Olivia Cox listen to a question during a match at the National Science Bowl, held last month at the National 4-H Youth Conference Center in Chevy Chase, Md. The all-girls team is an inspiration to other Buffalo Prep Students.

Funding for the program comes from contributions from community members and local businesses. Volunteers, many of them alumni, pitch in to help with the program’s day-to-day activities.

Many of the teachers moonlight. Mr. Deveso, for instance, is a Spanish teacher at St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute, a Buffalo Prep partner school. He first came to Buffalo Prep when he was asked to fill in for another teacher and was so impressed he has stayed on for 10 years.

“It is a very different experience,” he said. “In a private school, you have children used to having opportunity and privilege, … but you come here, and parents and children are grateful for everything you do for them.”

Each year, said Mr. Deveso, after school closes for the year, he and another St. Joseph’s teacher pick up the books that high school students leave behind. These, he said, become the curriculum for the next batch of Secondary Prep students.

Ninety-seven percent of the students in Graduate Prep go on to college, including Ivy League universities, Buffalo Prep officials say. While they do not track how many finish, Ms. O’Neil-White believes that most do. Staff members stay in touch with students for at least a year after they enter college.

Despite the rigor of Buffalo Prep, few students—three or four out of every 100—drop out of the precollegiate program. “We are very clear about what we expect,” Ms. O’Neil-White said. Students who seek entrance to Primary Prep need at least a B average. There is an entrance test for those trying to get into Secondary Prep.

In this year’s class are aspiring architects, engineers, and doctors.

Ms. Bizimungu, a senior, plans to attend Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., in the fall. A teammate on the science-bowl team, junior Bianca Coleman, 16, likes puzzles and wants to study forensic science, while another member, Kerris Sease, also a 16-year-old junior, wants to become a doctor.

(The other members of the team, Olivia Fox, 18, and Andrea Finley, 16, take part in a separate program at the University of Buffalo that partners with Buffalo Prep.)

Support System

The private schools that partner with Buffalo Prep say the students bring more racial and socioeconomic diversity into the schools, usually dominated by white children from upper-middle-class families. But what’s more, said Assistant Principal Diane Kaczmarek at Nardin Academy, the students are extremely bright and come well prepared.

Nardin, an independent Roman Catholic school that charges tuition of $8,000 a year, is state-of-the-art, with sun-splashed classrooms, well-equipped laboratories, and a newly renovated library.

“This helps us at the same time as it helps the students,” said Ms. Kaczmarek, who adds that other students learn from the Buffalo Prep students, who have had very different life experiences from their own.

The administrator remembers Ms. Bizimungu as a quiet girl when she first entered the school as a freshman. “She has since blossomed. … Her sparkle surprised me,” Ms. Kaczmarek said.

Although Ms. Bizimungu and her teammates did not win the science bowl, other students at Buffalo Prep draw inspiration from their success.

There is Hana Falein, a 9th grader at Nichols Academy, who came here from Sudan five years ago, not speaking a word of English.

At the public school she attended, Ms. Falein said, students made fun of her. Then she entered Buffalo Prep and was told she would have to write two 10-page papers. Ms. Falein said she panicked, then realized all she had to do was ask for help. Teachers helped her polish her English skills.

And the unrelenting discipline helped: Ms. Austin-Seymore, the program director, fines students a quarter whenever she hears them speak in a native tongue, which is enough to deter most students.

Today, Ms. Falein, 15, who wants to go to medical school, said she ends up at Buffalo Prep almost every day, even when she doesn’t have classes, working on homework or just reading.

“All those days I had to come in and stay late have paid off,” she said in flawless English. “Buffalo Prep has required us to think more than we were thinking.”

Timothy Rhodes, 17, a junior at Canisius High School, whom Mr. Deveso remembers as “a clown” when he first entered the program, is now an aspiring architect whose blueprint and model for a new Peace Bridge, a crossing that connects the United States and Canada at Niagara Falls, helped earn him a place at a summer program in the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia.

“If I didn’t go to this program, I wouldn’t get these grades and opportunities,” Mr. Rhodes said. “And I’d be 100 friends and family members short.”

Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the May 23, 2007 edition of Education Week as In Buffalo, Opening Doors for the Overlooked

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