Buffalo, for far too long, has served as ground zero for the onslaught of unfair attacks on public education. Negative media coverage, talk of mayoral control and a Board of Education bomb-thrower by the name of Carl Paladino all are constant sources of falsehoods and frustration. Truth is, for a school district plagued by poverty, Buffalo, in recent years, has seen its graduation rates rise and a greater share of its students moving on to college.
But in a city that has seen its fair share of hard knocks, NYSUT members in Western New York are the ones doing the knocking — and quite literally. They spent the summer engaging residents in face-to-face conversations as part of an intensive citywide door-knocking campaign aimed at measuring and enhancing support for Buffalo's public schools.
The feedback they heard is a far cry from the stories of doom-and-gloom reported in the media and the all-too-familiar rhetoric from public school critics.
"We wanted to carry out the mission of [NYSUT] President Karen E. Magee, who said ‘We are going to be a union that packs a stronger punch,'" said NYSUT Regional Political Organizer Louisa Pacheco. "This required us to build a grassroots army of leaders."
Teachers, education professionals and unionists from the city's public school district, and from suburban districts such as West Seneca, East Aurora and Hamburg joined ranks. With funding from a National Education Association grant — awarded to the Buffalo Believe project highlighting the positive in the city's public schools — the NYSUT members in early July underwent political organizing and communications training to gain the skills they needed to embark on this first-of-its-kind campaign. Over several weeks ending in mid- August, the army of activists visited the homes of more than 20,000 Buffalo voters to hear their thoughts on the state of public education.
"We wanted to cut through all of the misinformation to hear what real Buffalonians think about their schools," said Buffalo teacher and canvasser Sophia Howard Johnson. "We know what the ‘Ed Reformers' think of public schools, but how about Buffalo's parents?"
"This wasn't about knocking on doors with a clipboard in hand and trying to get petition signatures," said Joe Cantafio, president of the West Seneca Teachers' Association who helped lead the campaign. "This is about having real conversations. It's about building relations. And it's about listening. The only way we are going to beat the millionaires funding our opponents is by having genuine conversations with people."
Based on more than 5,000 conversations, results showed 73 percent of voters said they were strong supporters of Buffalo's public schools and another 20 percent were mostly supportive, "minus an issue here or there," Pacheco said.
Some of the concerns: Common Core, overtesting and the elimination of programs, such as music, due to inadequate education funding. Meanwhile, residents support full-day kindergarten and smaller class sizes.
Cantafio said what was especially gratifying was the "positive reaction" residents had when they discovered they were speaking directly with teachers and other education professionals.
"They were happy to see we were teachers, members of parents groups and people who have children in school like they do and they were thrilled that they were being given the opportunity to provide their own input," he said. "What we found was that, in the end, it's really local control that resonates with people, and that overwhelmingly, people support public schools and they support teachers."
The interaction with parents, said Pacheco, also benefitted the teachers and education professionals.
"They found they are celebrated in our community and there was such great energy coming back to them as they were talking to people face-to-face," Pacheco said. "This project has created space for them to reclaim the joy of their professions."
Canvasser Elaine Champion, president of the Early Childhood Staff Union at the Community Action Organization's Head Start, called the experience "empowering."
"People just wanted to talk," she said. "They really love their schools and they want to see them succeed."
Regent Catherine Collins, who was elected to the state's education policy setting board in March, praised the Buffalo Believe canvassers for starting "a new conversation about Buffalo schools."
"What you did this summer is a tremendous accomplishment, and proved that we are all in this together," she said.
Pacheco said the Buffalo Believe door-knocking campaign provides a strong a model for districts throughout Western New York and statewide, and provides a template for future Get Out the Vote drives.
"To be the change we want to see, we must get out and roll up our sleeves," Pacheco said. "The summer was spent learning and doing. As [NYSUT Executive Vice President] Andy Pallotta always says: ‘We must be at the table and not on the menu.'"