By Marcus Deveso, Assistant Director, Director of High School Prep and College Prep, Buffalo Prep
For the purposes of this essay, I will call him “James.” James was a good kid. He was incredibly bright and had a magic smile. He was polite and kind and just a lovely person. And James wanted an education. He really did. But he came from an impoverished part of Buffalo where a solid education in a good school is not a birthright. His struggling family’s biggest concerns included survival – attempting to secure basic needs like food, shelter, and heat in the winter. It is no surprise that, even though James had many personal educational goals and dreams, for a variety of reasons, his school experience did not reach him. Somehow, he found that his experience gave him no feasible, realistic alternative to the “safety” and sense of belonging provided by life on the streets.
Not long ago, James was shot and killed, well before he reached the ripe old age of 25. All that potential, all that desire for a good education and productive life, wiped off the face of the Earth in an instant.
James’s death (and the deaths of so many of our young people who have no realistic access to a quality education) is on your hands and it’s on my hands. We, as a community, failed him.
I wish I could say that James was the only student I ever taught whose light was extinguished far too early. You see, for many of us, quality education, whether public or private, for ourselves and our children, is just “what we do.” It’s the norm. For many of us, there was never a question as to whether or not we would go to a quality school. It was a path laid out before conception, and, barring a major life event, there was never a thought that it could be different. It goes something like this: first, get a decent K-12 education. Next, decide if we want to go to college, trade school, or military service. Then, explore the career of our choosing and join the work force. Finally, repeat the cycle for our children.
I realize I may be oversimplifying some of life’s difficult choices, but the fact remains that for many of us, at least the opportunity to make those choices exists.
However, for others, the pre-determined path goes something like this: first, because of where I was born, I attend one of many local schools that the New York State Department of Education has given the “priority” or “focus” designation (NB: though it may be “easy” to cast judgment on the schools themselves, we as a community must take into consideration the immense, seemingly impossible challenges these schools face daily.) Next, if I am able to navigate the many pitfalls and snares, and avoid dropping out, like so many of my peers, I attempt to compete for college placement and scholarships with students who attended a quality school. Then, if I’m not accepted into college or do not receive a scholarship (both very likely scenarios because of my educational experience thus far), I join the unskilled labor force, earning far less money than those who received a quality education. Of course, I have not even attempted to describe many of the day to day challenges (food, shelter, safety, etc…) that I would also face in this scenario. The final step – repeat the cycle for my children – is the one “step” in the process that mirrors those with educational advantage.
That is the enigma of unearned privilege, which haunts so many educators. Why are so many of us within the 716, literally a 15 minute drive from one another, born into such dramatically different situations that lead to such incomprehensibly divergent outcomes? There is no rhyme or reason. It is difficult to relate to, or even comprehend, the “other side” of Main St., but think of it like this: if we are running a 2k race and I begin at the 1k mark, while you aren’t even given access to the starting line, there is no amount of natural ability or effort that is going to allow you to have the same opportunity to finish that race (the finish line being college and career choices) in the same manner I do.
And to assume that people can just “help themselves” out of an underprivileged situation is akin to asking oneself to reach down and pick oneself off the ground by one’s own shoe laces. With no intervention, poverty begets poverty.
When it comes to unearned privilege and undeserved poverty, QUALITY education is THE great equalizer, THE single most effective way to jump social classes. It is as close to a sure thing as exists in this world. How important is a quality education? Important enough that in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the United Nations identified it as a basic human right of ALL children (Articles 28 and 29). Furthermore, UNICEF has described quality education as including the following conditions:
- Learners who are healthy, well-nourished and ready to participate and learn, and supported in learning by their families and communities.
- Environments that are healthy, safe, protective and gender-sensitive, and provide adequate resources and facilities
- Content that is reflected in relevant curricula and materials for the acquisition of basic skills, especially in the areas of literacy, numeracy and skills for life, and knowledge in such areas as gender, health, nutrition, HIV/AIDS prevention and peace.
- Processes through which trained teachers use child-centered teaching approaches in well-managed classrooms and schools and skillful assessment to facilitate learning and reduce disparities.
- Outcomes that encompass knowledge, skills and attitudes, and are linked to national goals for education and positive participation in society.
Sadly, between schools with privilege and schools without, the educational gaps in many of the above conditions are significant, and continue to grow. These are the very same gaps that perpetuate the cycles of privilege and poverty. To put it plainly, there still exists great inequity in area schools.
OK, it’s time for a confession: I love Buffalo. Only a few years ago, I would have faced national – and many times local – derision for such an admission. But it is different now. Buffalo is a city on the rise. One need only visit Canal Side, Larkinville, Chippewa, or many other pockets of the city to experience development and progress. I am proud of our civic history and hopeful for our civic future. I have loved raising a family here and, after spending time in many other cities, I still marvel how I can get virtually anywhere in 15 to 20 minutes.
However, even as optimism swells, the fact that our educational system has not progressed as much as our bar and brewery scene cannot bode well for our collective future. For better or for worse, tomorrow’s work force will consist of today’s students. Those with limited access to a quality education have a very slim chance of access to quality career opportunities (see pre-determined path above). There are literally thousands of area students (past and present), who have not experienced the opportunity of reaching their full potential, who probably do not even know what their full potential consists of. It boggles the mind to consider how much local talent remains untapped and how many opportunities have been wasted in the past.
Anyone with any trace of “Buffa-love” should feel desperate to remedy this situation. Our collective success depends on it. Either we all win, or we all lose.
Of course, like any complex, institutionalized social issue, there are no simple or perfect solutions. We are not going to simply stumble upon a solution. However, I am fully convinced that – excuse the cliché – knowledge is power. The first step to conquering educational inequity is to realize and admit that educational inequity exists. This is no indictment on any sector of our local population, but this area is still so segmented and compartmentalized, that I would venture there are thousands of Buffalonians who have little to no knowledge of the real educational challenges facing the region. I would also add that if they did know, there are also thousands who would be willing to work to overcome these difficulties. Take, for example, the Say Yes Buffalo program (http://sayyesbuffalo.org/), an incredible community partnership whose primary goals, according to their website, are “to convene the school district, parents, teachers, administrators, state, city and county governments, higher education, community based organizations, businesses and foundations to increase high school and postsecondary completion rates.” Additionally, there are numerous other organizations in the area whose entire existence is dedicated to improving quality educational access for all children. We are, indeed, the City of Good Neighbors, and that is cause for hope.
Anyone who cares about the future of our proud city must advocate for our children. Start by seeking out information with a simple Google search on education in Western New York. Check out facts on racial and socio-economic disparity in our schools. I highly recommend the recently released and incredibly enlightening report issued by the Racial Equity Roundtable (find it here https://racialequitybuffalo.org). Talk about it at the dinner table. Shout it from the roof tops. Dive deeper and support one of the many local organizations that are actively supporting equity in education. Become a Big Brother/Big Sister or a mentor. Regardless of what it is, just do something. We have demonstrated that when we all, as a community, prioritize an issue and row in the same direction, we can be incredibly impactful and accomplish more than any one individual or small group of individuals.
Access to quality education is vital. For all individuals, and by extension to the Western New York Community at large, it is, and will continue to be, the difference between thriving and surviving.
Then again, for some children, like James, it can literally be the difference between life and death.
Marcus Deveso is Assistant Director and Director of High School Prep and College Prep at Buffalo Prep, an organization founded in 1989 with “a mission is to provide access and preparation for talented underrepresented youth to achieve success in college preparatory high schools and higher education.” Previously, Deveso was a teacher at St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute.