by Sabirah Muhammad
After many decades of sustained struggle, organizing and activism, there’s a “new narrative” for Buffalo Public Schools, as was proudly proclaimed by Superintendent Kriner Cash at a recent press conference held at the Performing Arts School.
Dr. Cash declared over thunderous applause that the district is no longer failing, but thriving. The district now boasts smaller class sizes than ever before, 20 community schools, after-school programming at every school, and an average graduation rate that has skyrocketed to over 68% in the last three years. It’s an amazing turnaround, one that is the culmination of seeds planted, relentless pressure and the passing of this struggle from one generation to the next.
It’s the result of a confluence of factors that have finally gelled in due season, in response to the steadfast insistence that a quality education is every child’s right. This is indeed a time for celebration and congratulations. Even more… it’s a time for gratitude, acknowledgement and appreciation.
Buffalo – specifically Black Buffalo has a long history of fighting for equality in education, a fight that has produced giants and historic milestones. We owe a debt to those vigilant ones who rose up to demand parity – 20 years after the Supreme Court decided Brown vs. Topeka. We stand on the shoulders of the legendary Bill Gaiter and the BUILD organization, and in the shadow of the former BUILD Academy, an early example of excellence to be emulated.
The most recent reviving of the spirit in this exhausting war of attrition was the challenge of Minister Louis Farrakhan at the historic 1995 Million Man March to take personal responsibility for the condition of our communities…of our homes, our health, our local economies, of the education of our children.
By 2005, “Local Organizing Committees” had been formed nationwide to provide the structure for a “Millions More Movement.” Buffalo chose the name “Buffalo Local Action Committee, (BLAC), and comprised participants from every sector of our community. The Ministry of Education began to advocate in earnest for an end to sub-standard education in our city. We organized parents to join the already formed District Parent Coordinating Council (DPCC), in order to network with all of Buffalo’s parents on behalf of all of Buffalo’s children.
The journey was fraught with contention, as stakeholders guarded turf, and parents feared that a gain for one child meant a loss for another. Some saw access to a quality education as a social equalizer, moreover, a divine right. Others saw the denial of it as a weapon; strategic in the maintenance of an unequal status quo. Parents marshalled legal help to file complaints with the Justice Department, the Office of Civil Rights, formal appeals to Commissioners of Education to fight for funds, inclusion, fundamental respect as decision-makers for our children. We held rallies, protests and boycotts, entreating the board for partnership. Parents became engaged, and became a presence in the schools, at meetings and extracurricular functions.
This is the struggle that seeded the soil for the arrival of the current Superintendent, who has marveled at the unrivaled level of support for children that he’s found in Buffalo. We celebrate that only 3 schools remain in receivership, but we remember that parents’ agitation brought about this corrective action that empowered the Superintendent to glean unfit staff from those buildings. It was parents’ mass transfers of thousands of students from failing schools that placed the demand for capacity, that resulted in 10 new innovative schools.
It was the ground shaking of parents that caught the attention of the “Say Yes” program, distinguishing Buffalo as a worthy place for investment of the program’s resources. It was this force, already in motion…that now intersects with the historic positioning of our long-time advocate, Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples as Majority Leader in the State Legislature, where she rumbles for resources on behalf of her “Beloved Buffalo.” We’re right in position to benefit from Governor Cuomo’s new Education Equity Formula, which will now stop the hoarding of funds meant for beleaguered schools by wealthier ones.
There are so many to acknowledge and thank for this “new narrative”… for what the Superintendent called “a splendid day…” “a blessed day.” The “Say Yes” Program, the Rev. Kinzer Pointer and the partners whose vision organized the DPCC, a young Sam Radford, initiated as a student activist at ECC and already poised in the early 1990’s to lead the charge, the attorneys who have worked with parents, those activists who passed the baton and now provide counsel.
We thank Superintendent Kriner Cash for competent leadership, for cooperation and not combat, and Mayor Byron Brown and the Board of Education for partnership.
We thank every sincere teacher and administrator in whose hands we place our progeny; and have real love for those advocates of independent education holding a long-term vision and building an Ark.
We thank this august community newspaper that throughout this journey has served as our modern-day talking drum.
Most of all, we honor the parents who pushed back from the periphery, and found the courage to fight on, and our children who have endured the intolerable, in pursuit of all that’s possible.
Stay woke fam. Forward ever… backward never!