Table Magazine, Fall 2021

The West Side Connection

How “People Power” Is Changing the Face of a Community by Putting Students First

From the outside, there isn’t much to differentiate West Buffalo Charter School from your average K-8 establishment. Multi-colored banners set against a yellow-brick exterior announce the school’s presence on a quiet street. The schoolyard is equipped with a standard jungle gym, the kind found in most any playground. 

It’s the work that is taking place inside the classroom that makes West Buffalo Charter School the site of something special. For the past two years, the school has partnered with Rich Products and the educational nonprofit City Year to boost the surrounding community by investing in the students who will one day become its leaders.

Together, the three organizations are removing barriers to education and positioning today’s youth as the solution to tomorrow’s challenges.

Success that Defies the Odds

School leader Andrea Todoro knows a thing or two about barriers and the challenges they pose to education.  

“We have an extremely high poverty rate,” she said. “We hover around 87 to 90% free and reduced lunch. We have a high ENL [English as a new language] population. There are 24 different languages spoken within the homes of our community, and we have a relatively high special education percentage.” 

Yet, diversity has proven to be one of West Buffalo Charter School’s biggest assets. It consistently ranks in the top five Buffalo-area schools and is on par with the state average. 

Todoro says the recipe for this success is a simple one. “We educate the whole child.” This philosophy is one the school shares with City Year, and together, with support from Rich’s, they are providing students with a platform for success.

The Value of a Familiar Face

When classes begin at West Buffalo Charter School, it is in a mixed fashion. A few students amble into the classroom, while the rest wait on the other side of the digital ether. For these at-home learners, a familiar face greets them as they log in: one of City Year’s Americorps volunteers.

The Americorps volunteers work alongside West Buffalo Charter School instructors to provide students with one-on-one support. In some cases, they are helping them cope with learning struggles, or they’re having meaningful conversations about their feelings toward school. Most importantly, the support comes with genuine connection and a sense of familiarity.

“It’s really nice for our kids to be able to turn to young adults that often look like them. The students can identify better with the corps members because they’re closer in age. There’s just a different level of relationship,” said Todoro.

This closeness in age and shared backgrounds allows Americorps volunteers to bring something to the classroom that is hard to duplicate with the traditional student-teacher dynamic. 

“On the days that they’re off, I have teachers coming to me saying, ‘Is my volunteer coming in today? I really need them online.’ That tells me that it’s impactful.”

An Impact That Goes Beyond Academics

One of the benefits of having City Year in the school during this unprecedented time has been the ability to leverage the relationships the Americorps volunteers have with students and utilize them where they are most needed.

Over the course of a school year, Americorp volunteers are there to aid students who are falling behind, gain insight into how they feel, or just help them navigate all that school entails. This focus on the emotional well-being of students, rather than just academics, is what Todoro means by educating the whole child. 

Michael Stevens, executive director of City Year, explains how the group’s two-fold approach to building up the community aids access to education. 

“City Year alone is never going to be successful at changing trajectories or enacting mass improvements. We focus and try to provide people-power that’s in line with the vision of the school leaders that we work with.”

This approach to collaboration means City Year is constantly on the hunt for partners that share its culture and goals. So, when it came to Buffalo, Rich Products was a natural fit. With West Buffalo Charter School already in the picture, City Year approached Rich’s about sponsoring ten of their Americorp volunteers to assist with in-class instruction.

The goal? To give back to the West Side of Buffalo—the neighborhood both West Buffalo Charter School and Rich’s corporate headquarters call home.

A Partnership, A Promise

Rich’s sponsorship funds the good work the City Year team does at West Buffalo Charter School. But the partnership goes beyond financial support; Rich’s associates are also taking an active role. 

In a similar fashion to how City Year’s Americorp volunteers provide one-on-one support for West Buffalo Charter School students, each Americorp member is in turn mentored by a Rich’s associate. The goal? To give back to the West Side of Buffalo—the neighborhood both West Buffalo Charter School and Rich’s corporate headquarters call home.

Dubbed “The West Side Promise Neighborhood,” Rich’s is committed to building strong partnerships and bringing in talent that benefits the West Side. One part of that promise is providing a holistic learning experience for underserved youth. The other is building leadership skills and enhancing the professional backgrounds of the community members and partners the organization works with. 

The goal? To give back to the West Side of Buffalo—the neighborhood both West Buffalo Charter School and Rich’s corporate headquarters call home.

After their year of service, City Year’s Americorp volunteers have the option of remaining in Buffalo. Jordan Kirisits, assistant marketing manager at Rich’s and City Year liaison, explained how Rich’s mentorship program helps prepare them for their professional futures. 

“The Rich’s associate and the mentee meet once a month,” she said. “It’s very structured, where, during certain months, we’re reviewing and refining resumes; other months involve setting the mentee up for successful job interviews.”  

This is in addition to the special group opportunities Rich’s provides, like resume writing workshops. While small, these acts lay the foundation for something bigger. 

Nearing the halfway point of a four-year sponsorship, all parties are looking ahead. City Year is hoping to expand the program for the coming year. This would mean increasing the number of mentors on Rich’s side—something the team is excited about given what a successful and rewarding experience it has been. Kelly Reimann, a senior recruiter at Rich’s, summed up how impactful the work can be. 

“What better vehicle do we have than organizations like City Year to bring these students, these volunteers, under our arms and work with them to give back to the community? And then, eventually, if we can extend them a job, I think that’s the ultimate goal.” 

That goal helps keep Buffalo moving toward a future powered by young, diverse problem solvers. Through their partnership, Rich Products, City Year, and West Buffalo Charter are empowering a model of holistic education while attracting a mosaic of talent to the Buffalo area, strengthening our community in the process.