Published February 18, 2020
Joelle Formato, EdM ’15, planned on an accounting career until curiosity inspired her to sign up for two years teaching math in a public school outside Washington, D.C. She was interested in service to others. It seemed like the right opportunity. “Five days into teaching I knew I had found my life’s work,” said Formato.
During her time working for the nonprofit Teach for America, which places its teachers in high-need, under-performing schools, she realized how unequal education was. The suburban town she grew up in came with a safe school and culture of excellence. That environment was missing for the kids in her math classes. They deserved better.
She developed her philosophy from there. Formato, a Williamsville native, believes the children she now works with every day in the school she opened deserve better, too. They should not have to go to a lower quality public school because of where they live, she said. No one should. “I just feel like it is my duty as a human being to have some hand in changing the cycle.”
During that first teaching experience in math class with seventh- and eighth-graders, she thought it was a shame that barriers kept her students from capitalizing on their potential. Some stayed in the back of the classroom. Some were reading at first or second-grade levels. Some dropped out of school to join gangs. Many had this in common: They didn’t think they had the skills they needed to succeed. They didn’t see school as a place for them.
“You fall in love with school at K through 2,” Formato said. “If you don’t get it right there, then the cycle perpetuates itself and then you have students in seventh- and eighth-grade who don't see themselves as successful students.”
After completing her work with Teach for America, she enrolled in the GSE master’s program in school counseling. She knew school leaders have great power to influence student learning and success. “The mindset of the adults is the number one predictor,” she said.
Her UB experience and connection with Luis “Tony” Tosado, PhD, a clinical assistant professor in the school counseling program, led her to consider how a “deficit” mindset can lead adults to focus on what’s wrong. Instead, she aimed for the inverse: Build on what’s going well.
Formato went on to win a Boston-based fellowship: Building Excellent Schools. This program was for educators interested in designing and founding a school. In a class of 19, Formato was one of two local fellows funded by Buffalo’s Cullen Foundation.
“That program was instrumental,” she said.
As part of the process, she studied East Side Buffalo neighborhoods. She met with parents to find out what they needed from a school. “Families really knew they could trust us,” she said. “We’ve seen families really rise to the occasion. They are our greatest partners.”
Formato then worked with Michael Chapman, pastor of St. John Baptist Church, who agreed to rent her space in his church’s Michigan Avenue community center in Buffalo.
Her passion for change led her to found Persistence Preparatory Academy Charter School. The “hustling little school” now has a staff of 25 and 168 students in kindergarten through second grade where Formato is the Head.
Signs of success include the confidence and reading ability of two students whose parents decided to hold them back a year so they could focus on improving their skills. “To see those moments when things work out like that tells me we are on the right track,” she said.
To carry on and keep trying in spite of challenge, as those students did, was what she intended when she chose the school’s name. “Persistence embodies, for me, the number one value that a person needs in life,” she said. “The challenges will always come ... You have to know what it is you’re working toward.”