Ensuring large and small WNY school districts are re-imagined together

Posted at 5:28 PM, May 13, 2020

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — Melodie Baker was selected by The Governor’s office to be a member of the Reimagining Education Advisory Council.

“I don’t know how my name got into the pot.”

The invite came via Facebook messenger. Someone messaged Baker asking for her number. She later looked that person up and realized they worked for Cuomo.

A few days later, Baker got a call saying she was on the shortlist.
She found out she made it on The Council at the same time as the rest of the public —when Cuomo announced it during his daily briefing.

“I was ecstatic,” she said. “This is the work that I do. My entire career has been surrounding, supporting the most underserved individuals through the lens of education.”

Baker currently serves as the director of education for the United Way of Buffalo and Erie County.

Her appointment to the council received skepticism from some who noted no representatives employed by the State’s two largest school districts (Buffalo and New York City) were included on the council.

Aníbal Soler, Jr., the superintendent of the Batavia City School District, said he told Baker to prepare for some negativity.

“'Be ready to be criticized,'” he said he told Baker. “Mel comes from United Way — people don’t realize her background.”

Baker said she is more than qualified to represent Western New York’s largest district.

“Not only am I a Buffalo Public Schools alum, but I also worked in Buffalo Public Schools. I attended Buffalo Public Schools from kindergarten through 12th grade. My husband was a teacher in Buffalo Public Schools. I’m currently implementing a $2.5 million grant in Buffalo Schools.”

But as conversations with the council are set to begin next week, many are shifting their attention to making sure everyone’s priorities are brought to the table, including the needs of some of the smaller districts in our region.

“Our issues are geographic in nature,” said Solar, who represents a district with suburban, rural and urban students. “Our kids are spread out.”

“We have some of the same challenges (as the larger districts), but often they’re overlooked when it comes to funding. We’re funded differently. We still rely on local taxes.”

Soler said when it comes to “re-imaginging” education in New York, some of the work has already begun.

“I think it would be bad practice to not look at what we’ve done now. I think we’ve done some reimagining already. I think many communities have turned on a dime to say, ‘Okay, remote learning. What does that look like?’”

He thinks there is an opportunity to rethink what junior and senior year look like for high schoolers.

“As we get kids ready for college, are there opportunities to bring a blended learning model in? If we can’t enter the buildings, we do need to reimagine some of our challenges around internet access,” he said.

Bridging the digital divide is a common denominator amongst teachers, parents, educators, and administrators that spoke with 7 Eyewitness News.

“Making sure technology isn’t a divider. Right now, I think that’s expanded a bit because there are kids that have home structures and the means to have internet access at home. Then there are families who just never was something that they had.”

In larger districts, a holistic approach is becoming a talking point.

“It’s going to be critically important to align public health and public education,” said Jessica Bauer Walker, Parent Community Health Worker Association President for Buffalo Public Schools.

Walker says using an equity lens will be vital as we reimagine education.

“We need to think about diversity equity and inclusion in all of these efforts and making sure we’re protecting our most vulnerable students,” she said. “Children of color, children who have special education needs, refugees, and immigrants. We need to be centering these children and families as we plan for the future. And if we do the right thing for them, it’s going to make our schools and our districts better overall for everyone.”

Teachers have also reached out to Baker, to make sure their priorities can be brought to the table, as well.

“I think the word reimagine has taken a little bit of a negative connotation,” said Soler. “People are worried about their jobs; they think everything is going to go online, and we’ll lose teachers. That’s where I would challenge the committee to clear that up quickly.”

Baker said she’s an advocate for children being at school.

“…In a school environment, with their teachers. I want families to know there is no replacement for a teacher; there is no replacement for a student being in a classroom and receiving the richness that his peers or her peers offer.”

She said she is going to the council with everyone’s priorities and goals in mind.

“I am looking forward to not only getting my kids back into school but getting your kids back into school with them.”