CharterFolk X Vol 23 – Joseph Polat, Advancing Buffalo’s Kids to the Education Super Bowl

Good morning, CharterFolk.

Today we are honored to recognize Joseph Polat, Executive Director of the Buffalo Academy of Science Charter School, as CharterFolk Extraordinaire.

All attention in Buffalo this weekend focuses on whether their beloved Bills will make the Super Bowl for the first time in a generation. Our story focuses on the fact that a very special leader has made sure that the students of Buffalo are making it to the Super Bowl of excellent public education.

Anyone who knows Joe well reports that he is not one seeking controversy or attention. Since coming to the school in 2011 after receiving degrees and credentials from many noted universities, Joe has made it his obsession to create a great charter school in a historically underserved community in Buffalo. By all reports, he has succeeded wildly, making BuffSci among the most respected public schools in all of Buffalo.

That has included demonstrating excellence in STEM fields where the organization has forged new trails, being the first to bring an innovative maker space to Buffalo …

… excelling in many competitions …

… receiving awards ….

… and earning grants bringing critically need funding to a community that has long been under-resourced.

It has led to the organization having an incredibly appreciative and loyal base of parents and students who testify to the difference the school has made in their lives. I especially love this young woman’s quote:

If you don’t think your child is getting a great education at the school they’re at right now, I can 100% guarantee that they’ll get the education that they need here.

Not surprisingly, parents and the community have requested that BuffSci grow.

Over time BuffSci has evolved from originally only serving grades 9-12 to having also a middle school and an elementary school that, as of the 2019-20 school year, was serving grades K-2. At the time of their charter renewal last spring, BuffSci requested to add grades 3 and 4 so that the organization could finally serve its kids and families across the full K-12 continuum.

Unfortunately and unbelievably, the New York Board of Regents voted not only to reject BuffSci’s grade expansion request, but to deny their entire renewal, putting the school’s very existence at risk.

The rationale the Board of Regent members used to justify their vote was both stunning and sadly predictable. This was from Regent Susan Mittler:

Right now, I really believe that the Buffalo Public Schools need our support as the primary issue. And charter schools have to take the second seat

It created a make or break moment for a school leader who had never sought the limelight but who also realized that he could not let stand a decision that would put charter school students in a “second seat.” His comments before the Regents and in the press struck the right tone, reassuring his students and families that somehow the school would persevere, while emphasizing that no public official would want to do damage to Buffalo’s highest need kids.

This was a clear mistake. No one wants to take one of the best educational opportunities away from the children, especially the children who live in poverty.

He also orchestrated an advocacy full-court-press, bringing his parents and students into the campaign …

… hosting a community rally …

… enlisting the support of key community members whose trust BuffSci has earned over the years …

… and working together with the New York Charter Schools Association to bring the collective pressure of the broader movement to bear.

It led to unprecedented levels of collective action from literally thousands of New York Charterfolk participating in the association’s #WeStandWithBuffSci campaign, and in perhaps one of the most stunning 180 degree turnarounds that we have seen in recent memory, the decision was reversed.

Regent Member Francis Will’s comments at the 33 minute mark of the public hearing are representative of the transformational affect that community advocacy had on Regents’ opinions.

I regret that in the last meeting that we had that I voted against the proposition of renewal …. I have reconsidered after great internal struggle, and I very strongly believe that this school, once I had reviewed all the materials, plus the letters that I received, the kind of support that school has from the constituency, from parents from students, I feel that it is an unnecessary burden on those students, on those parents, to refuse to renew fully this school which I see as exemplary in what it has done in terms of student achievement and well-being …

It cleared the way for BuffSci to stay right on course for serving more students in Buffalo, something the organization has moved forward on aggressively in recent months, in the process breathing life back into a vital community resource that had been under-utilized for years.

At the heart of the effort has been Joseph, an extraordinary charter school leader who understands that no public school students, charter or otherwise, should ever be relegated to a second seat, but instead should be guaranteed a place in the Super Bowl of public education excellence.

It’s why we are delighted today to recognize Joseph Polat as yet another inspiring example of CharterFolk Extraordinaire.