Joelle Formato (EdM ’15), planned on an accounting career until curiosity inspired her to sign up for two years teaching math in a school outside Washington, D.C. She was interested in service to others. It seemed like a fit. “Five days into teaching I knew I had found my life’s work,” said Formato, a Williamsville native.
While working with Teach for America, a nonprofit placing teachers in high-need, under-performing schools, she realized how unequal education was. Her safe suburban hometown school had a culture of excellence. That environment was missing for the kids in her math classes. They deserved better. To help make change happen, she opened Persistence Prep, a majority-Black charter school on Buffalo’s East Side in 2018.
She was 28. Now, after two years, 232 students are enrolled from kindergarten through third grade and there is a waitlist. This year, after managing the challenges of COVID-19, she secured a $6.5 million loan to buy and renovate former Buffalo Public School 62 on Urban Street. She plans to expand and open there in the fall of 2021.
To get this far, Formato followed a path she started to see after that first teaching job. Back then she noticed the barriers that kept students from capitalizing on their potential. Some were reading at the first-grade level. Some dropped out to join gangs. School didn’t seem like 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.”
Her GSE school counseling master’s degree studies led to more insights. She credits Luis “Tony” Tosado, a clinical associate professor, for explaining how a “deficit” mindset leads adults to focus on what’s wrong instead of what’s going well.
Signs of success after the first year included the confidence and reading ability gained by 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,” Formato said. “Persistence embodies, for me, the number one value that a person needs in life.”
Adapting to the pandemic’s sudden changes deepened her understanding of the role of schools in a community. “The school is more than just a physical building,” she said. Persistence Prep’s pandemic efforts included asking teachers to lead online video classes at three different times, with evening sessions at 7:30 p.m. so working parents could help their children. Teachers also stepped in for extra one-on-one communication with families to help with needs like food and Wi-Fi.
As this new school year started, more 2020 adaptations were in place. The curriculum now addresses social justice. Students all have school-issued Google Chromebooks. Parents could choose whether to have children go to school for a few days each week or work completely online.
Formato is proud of how well they managed. “You don’t join our team unless you at your core, fundamentally believe that access to a high-quality education is a civil right,” said Formato. “I am continuously fired up to work alongside a team that gets that.”