Lessons from the Field

High Road Fellows
June 23, 2014
Tonya Russell

I arrived in buffalo more than 3 weeks ago and already I am starting to see my way of thinking change. The immense segregation reminds me of my hometown of St. Louis. Instead of ignoring the issue, like I use to do in St. Louis, I am tackling it head on and learning from it. In my discussions with colleagues and during our Friday sessions at the High Roads I have learned about poverty and segregation and the ramifications it has on the community. I am ashamed that I never saw it before, but as my post will outline I am no longer going to let myself ignore it.

I am working with Liberty Partnership, which is an organization that works in dropout prevention in the city of Buffalo. They are mainly concentrated in three underperforming schools in the Buffalo area, but students from any school are welcome to join the program. For the three main schools they provide tutoring and mentoring services during the school day. On top of this they have an after school program for any student at any school during which time they teach lessons about character development, careers as well as help with homework.

I was allowed the opportunity to visit all three of the schools and see firsthand how Liberty interacts with the students. The first school I visited was East High School, which is a school with the highest dropout rate in Buffalo and in what is considered a rougher part of town. Visiting East High opened my eyes to a world I was not acquainted with. I grew up in a suburb and went to a small private school, and although I had read a lot about risk factors for drop-outs and underperforming schools, this was the first time I saw it with my own eyes and it shocked me. With a total enrollment of 387, only 126 showed up to school that day, which was something I never imagined actually happened. On top of that even more of them skipped class consistently. The Liberty Staff member and I even had to resort to going to the lunchroom during every lunch period trying to catch kids that had been skipping class all morning so that we could work with them.

With all the chaos that was all around me I was tentative about talking with the students one on one. That day we were targeting seniors and having them fill out a small quiz about college facts such as what is the FAFSA, the difference between private and public schools, etc and then reviewing the answers with them to make sure everything was clear. When I sat down with each student I was amazed at how bright the kids were and what big dreams they had. All they needed was someone to be there and show them how to reach their goals, which is what Liberty had provided to them. Each one was telling me about his or her future and what school they wanted to go to and exuded hope and determination. During my day at East, and the subsequent schools I learned that it is not these kid’s fault that the system is failing them. Many of them were growing up in single parent homes with multiple children, many were pregnant or had kids, or were surrounded by the wrong crowd. As I continued to interact with them I realized, that the only difference between them and me was where we were born, which is why I am glad that there are organizations like Liberty trying to show these kids that they have the potential to do anything.

My trips to the school allowed me to see the kids that my work at Liberty will be helping. I am working with the staff at Liberty to create a workforce development-training program for our high schoolers. We are designing a curriculum that will teach kids soft skills, such as how to dress for an interview, what to say during the interview, proper etiquette, computer skills as well as help them with their reading and writing. After we have created a solid curriculum I will be working to create partnerships with local businesses. Ideally, businesses will agree to hire those that successfully complete our program, or allow for them to interview for a position. This work is important to give the students work experience and to teach them what is expected of them in the workforce.

Overall I have enjoyed my time at Buffalo and have dispelled a lot of stereotypes that I came here with. I am beginning to notice that I enjoy work that deals with social justice and that I might want to do something with that after I graduate. I lived in my sheltered bubble for so long, and am just starting to burst free. It is a great feeling to see the world for what it is, but at the same time it hurts my heart.  I have heard so many sad stories about the conditions that children way younger than me are dealing with. I am starting to see that society has given up on these kids in poor neighborhoods and it is wrong. Everyone deserves a chance, and hopefully the program I will construct by the end of the program will ensure that.