Buffalo Public Schools: A Powerhouse District with a Dedication To STEM Education

No Easy Task

Buffalo Public School District is the second largest district in New York State, serving over 30,000 students. There are 64 schools operating within the Buffalo City Public School District. Despite its size, there is this synergy across the district because of the community that they have built.

Buffalo is a community that runs deep and educates across generations. Each of the administrators I had the opportunity to chat with have either attended Buffalo Public Schools, have deep family ties to it, or both.

The Humans Behind The Task

Mrs. Sharon Belton-Cottman is the President of the Buffalo Public School’s Board of Education. She is a main player in the partnership between Woz ED and the Buffalo Public School District. Mrs. Belton-Cottman is a native Buffalonian and went to school within the district. She has been serving on the Board since 2011 and, prior to her presidency, she served the Ferry District Board as a representative for ten years.

She has spent her career focused on making education equitable. In recent years, she has pushed for more inclusivity in STEAM education by working with stakeholders to give more students access to science and technology resources.

Marquita Bryant is the Principal for Frederick Law Olmsted School 64, a school dedicated to early childhood education. Born and raised in Buffalo and daughter to a life-long teacher, Marquita has seen the power of holistic education in her own experience. She is dedicated to giving her students the foundational knowledge required for them to progress and is continuously learning new ways to engage Buffalo’s youngest students.

Mr. Robert Harris, the Director of Career and Technical Education, attended school within the Buffalo City School District and both of his parents graduated from Buffalo high schools. He has been working in the district for 23 years, beginning his journey as a Home Economics teacher. He has found, in his current role, a passion for strengthening his community through preparing children for successful futures.

Dr. Kelly Baudo did not attend school within the District, but her parents did. After studying organic and forensic chemistry in college, she planned to pursue a career in the field. When her health would not allow for this pursuit, she shifted gears and turned to education. After many years of teaching chemistry and science within the district, she now serves as the Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum Assessment and Instruction.

Dr. Tonja Williams, the Superintendent of Buffalo City Public Schools, is a true leader in the community. She attended schools within the district and graduated from Riverside High School. After a brief time away to study school counseling, she returned to Buffalo and has been serving the district for 33 years, first as a school counselor and then as an administrator. Her deep roots and dedication to the district contribute to her excellent leadership.

The teachers of STEM are the true superstars in the implementation process. They have to take the time to learn new technologies themselves and show up each day to teach and learn alongside their students. I heard from a few of them as well. Mr. Raymond Farrell has taught Computer Science and Technology Education in the district for 20 years. Mr. Michael Cellino works in the Career and Technical Education department at Hamlin Park School #74.

It’s an Opportunity Gap

Equity is the top priority for Buffalo administrators. For Dr. Williams, there is no such thing as an achievement gap, there is only such a thing as an opportunity gap. If all students were given the same tools and resources, the achievement gap would cease to exist. This is on the forefront of educators’ minds in the district as they adopt new strategies and implement curriculum.

These leaders must ask themselves hard questions regarding their purchases of resources and implementation of programs. Some of these questions, according to Dr. Williams, are,

“Where do we fit this in? Where do we get the funding to get all this material for our kids? How does this align with New York Educational Standards?”

In 2019, an organization called Western New York STEM put on an event where multiple companies and tech-based organizations performed demonstrations. This is where President Belton-Cottman first stumbled upon Woz ED. She knew right away that it would be widely influential in her district. She discussed the possibility with principals and assistant principals throughout the district and they collectively decided that Woz ED would fit right into the “Common Core” academic standards of New York State.

Buffalo’s investment in Woz ED curriculum and STEM Kits is exactly that, an investment in the student’s future. When first brainstorming ways to implement STEM curriculum kits, Dr. Baudo, Mr. Harris, Dr. Williams and other administrators considered utilizing it in an after-school program. After careful consideration, they realized that many of their students would not be able to attend an after-school program, especially with a situation such as the national bus driver shortage.

Keeping their number one pillar of equity in mind, they decided that they would take on the harder task and find a way to implement STEM into their already existing curriculum so that each Buffalo student is given the opportunity to explore areas such as Robotics, Computer Science, Drones and Engineering Design (3D Printing). 

Working with Woz ED

Buffalo began implementing their own STEM curriculum a few years ago, but I like the way Mr. Harris phrased it when he said,

“With Woz ED, we now have a resource to make it a living, learning experience.”

When I spoke with Mrs. Belton-Cottman, she noted that, “as with anything, there’s a learning curve, but once you get over that, you can do anything.” She told me that the most important aspects of implementing a new STEM curriculum are time and the right people. For her, that second part is what has made it all possible.

Buffalo Public School District is made up of action-oriented, dedicated, and forward-thinking people who believe in the importance of teaching children the skills necessary to work in the 21st century and beyond, just like the people behind Woz ED.

At Ms. Bryant’’s school, they are using kits within six career pathways and every student has access to Woz STEM Kits. She attributes this to a slow, steady roll out. It is clear that her drive and dedication to providing cutting edge education to her early learners also steered her in the right direction.

She was one of the principals that President Belton-Cottman introduced Woz ED to after attending the demonstration by New York State STEM. She told me that she was a proponent from the start, especially after attending a student demonstration at a high-school in Salamanca District with several Buffalo administrators and witnessing what these students were able to do with these resources and skill-sets.

The district’s implementation plan is well-structured. They will start teaching Level 1 Robotics to kindergarten students, followed by Level 1 Drones in first grade, and Level 1 Engineering Design in second grade. In grades 3-6, students will cover the second level of each pathway, while the third level will be taught in middle school.

The fourth level will be taught in high school where students will be offered a course that builds upon all the STEM-related concepts they have learned throughout the district and introduces more advanced technological concepts.

Happenings & Fruition

I asked the teachers and leaders of specific schools about what they have seen improve the most within the students and within their school systems.

Raymond Farrell says,

“I have seen STEM improve students’ lives in many ways.  It gives them self-confidence when they are the person in the room who people turn to for technology questions.  Their understanding of different technologies has allowed them to draw connections in their other classes about how some of the theory is being applied in real world situations.  Additionally, it has the potential to help students break down the digital divide and help families and communities better understand technology and its place in the world.”

Marquita Bryant was able to share with me some lessons and experiences that her students are having throughout the school year. She mentioned her student’s ability to perform actions like breaking and writing code, having robust, collaborative conversations about concepts such as self-driving cars, learning about aircraft and flying, and understanding the importance of cybersecurity. She is inspired by the level of understanding and ability that is present within her students who are extremely young, ranging from ages four to nine.

She has noticed an improvement in students’ ability to participate in problem solving, collaboration, and critical thinking. She also has seen how much excitement and engagement there is amongst both teachers and students. It is almost as if these children don’t actually feel like they are attending school because they want to be there.

It’s a symbiotic relationship because when students are happy and engaged, teachers are too. She told me that teachers’ morale has improved tenfold with the implementation of Woz ED curriculum and STEM kits. This is integral in a time where teacher’s seem to be losing their overall drive across the nation.

Engaging a Community

When I spoke to Dr. Williams, she had just attended a district wide “Creativity Night” focused on STEM Education for K-4th graders. It was so full that there was a line to get in and people buzzing around everywhere. She said you could feel the excitement, not just from the students, but from their families as well.

This event was a prime example of how STEM Education can have a positive impact on the community. Not only were these young students doing remarkable things with technology like flying drones and explaining the process, but their parents were there cheering them on.

Mr. Harris recently attended the roll out of Hamlin Park Claude & Ouida Clapp Academy #74, where WKBW Channel 7 News was also in attendance. Here students were showcasing their use of 3D printers to create non-traditional name plates for teacher’s desks.

The most inspiring aspect of this is not strictly the fact that they know how to use this technology, but that they can explain every step of the process. WKBW Channel 7 News interviewed a few students who walked them through the process seamlessly.

Towards the Future

In the case of a large urban district like Buffalo, communication and streamlining is pivotal. In order to make sure these aspects are present, Perett Walker, a former principal in the Buffalo District, has recently accepted the position as a Woz ED Supervisor. She will keep the district informed about the latest Woz ED materials, work to align STEM concepts with New York learning standards, and ensure continuous growth in STEM for teachers and students.

Dr. Baudo emphasizes the importance of creating more opportunities for students to participate in STEM competitions. These competitions are not only a great way to engage students, but also provide them with a platform to compete in larger tech competitions that could potentially earn them scholarships or cash prizes to be used towards their education.

Mr. Harris and his team are working with the idea of “IT Camp.” These days it is common that kids specifically interested in robotics or coding attend summer camps to immerse themselves in technology. Seeing as this is not a possibility for everyone, Mr. Harris  hopes to create a school program that resembles this concept at some point in the future.

Mr. Cellino from Hamlin Park School #74 talks about Buffalo becoming an exemplary district in the STEM field. He says,

“I think we would like to see Buffalo be a real inspirational district when it comes to our focus innovation and being one of the leaders in the STEM field. Starting at the elementary level and moving into all of the programs in the high schools. I think Buffalo would like to be a place where colleges and employers look at BPS and find students or applicants who already have some of the skills that are needed in the future job markets.”

Educating across Generations

When talking about his role as Director of Career and Technical Education, Mr. Harris shared the importance of educating children in technology.

“We know that this type of information will prepare kids for careers…this is the largest area where there is a hole in employment right now. It pays well if you have the knowledge base that you need in order to be effective. And it goes across different areas…students get these different experiences and then they are able to move forward at a quicker rate. And the whole thing is about equity. If we did not have Woz ED to provide for these students, they may not have the resources to attend some other technology camp or program.”

Dr. Baudo expressed the importance of allowing students to visualize themselves within certain spaces like engineering and science. She believes that self-actualization happens at a young age and that kids are naturally investigators.

Everyone has the ability to learn, but not everyone is given the same opportunity and not everyone is represented in fields like engineering. She wants all of the students in the district, “to be able to see that I am a scientist, I am an engineer, I am that smart person that can do this,” no matter what their background is.

To Whom Much is Given, Much is Required

Dr Williams is a living example of what Dr. Kelly Baudo alludes to, paving the way for future generations. She is a first generation college graduate and each of her younger family members have followed in her footsteps. She made the seemingly impossible, possible.

She now sits in the head seat of Buffalo City Public School District with the intent of continuing to impact generations of students and families. She does not take her work lightly. It is challenging work, tiresome work, and continuous work.

There is a saying that Dr. Williams quoted to me that I’ve heard often, but that struck me in the moment, as she added a few of her own words to the end. “To whom much is given, much is required to also give and serve.” She is a servant leader who loves her community fiercely and it shows. To her, this work is not business as usual, it is resilience, empowerment, and equity. She says,

“I feel very blessed to have had a 33 year career where I know for certain that at the end of the day I can say that I’ve had the opportunity to not only impact the current students, but future generations behind them.”

Mrs. Belton-Cottman would agree. As someone who has devoted her life to bettering the educational system within New York, she too believes in service oriented leadership. She continues to seek out new ways to “level the educational playing field.” At this moment in time, she sees STEM education as a way to achieve that.




Published: May 19, 2023


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