By: Paul Fanara
Nestled inconspicuously inside of one of Buffalo’s glorious 19th-century mansions, built when Buffalo was booming, resides an organization that you might not expect to find occupying a mansion.
The Buffalo Academy of Scholars occupies the first floor of this magnificent piece of the city’s history. In stark contrast to the wistful splendor represented by Buffalo’s still standing architectural cornerstones, the Academy of Scholars doesn’t look at their surroundings, and wish for what was; they look at their inhabitants, and envision a better future.
Executive Director of the Academy of Scholars, Alan Hibbard, is part of the growing trend of Buffalo’s youth taking charge, taking risks, and making a difference in the lives of people right here in our community.
“It had been my dream to start my own school,” Hibbard explained, “it happened a lot sooner than I thought it would.” In his second year in his position as Executive Director, Hibbard is already creating his legacy.
“Everyone has the power to change the world for the better, and if I go through life without making the world better in the ways that I know I’m capable of, I will feel like I squandered life. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it is worth it, every day.”
This diminutive private school is trying to fill some big shoes, and make sweeping changes. Up against a daunting landscape of school standardization, charter school options, and century old private institutions, the Academy of Scholars isn’t just fighting to help students discover the power of their own education, but they’re fighting to change conventional educational practices. With a total current enrollment of only ten students, they offer a significantly different educational program, and experiences for those who choose this school.
“Awareness is our biggest challenge. Not many people know we’re here, or that they have an option in their high-school education,” Hibbard stated as we examined what it takes to make a new, private school successful. “People think high school is something they have to do, but most people don’t understand they have a choice in where they go to school. I’m a believer that you’re not given an education, you have to take an education. We want to give students control over their education so they can take charge of it. Funding is another problem. Most private schools get funding from a healthy alumni base. We don’t have many alumni, and since we’re a private school, we don’t get any public funding, or taxpayer funding.”
On top of those typical business challenges, there is one other unique challenge the Buffalo Academy of Scholars faces challenging the accepted standards of how an education is delivered.
“We’re re-thinking education from the ground, up, and sometimes we get pushback for doing that. Like with all innovation, it’s in everyone’s best interest to start fresh, look at what has been working, and what hasn’t worked well. So the things that work, let’s keep them, and the things that haven’t, let’s scrap them, and start over.”
Such a perspective – going against how it has always been done – often challenges social perceptions on critical topics, such as education. Hibbard understands this, but undaunted, stands by his philosophies, and strategies.
“Whenever you change an industry, there is pushback, but for those who experience our school, they tend to be very supportive of what we do.”
Hibbard recounted personal stories of students that have attended, and currently attend the Academy. With such a small student body, for essentially a startup institution, Hibbard, and his staff have ample opportunity to get to know their students directly, and likewise, the students get plenty of one-on-one assistance with their education. Their student body typically doesn’t just find themselves attending a new school without a reason for making the change. Students who have made the switch from public, or other larger private schools, to this new, more experimental school, have done so in order to overcome their own challenges.
Hibbard detailed some of these challenges, and described how this new environment has helped the Academy’s students thrive, after being in educational situations where they floundered.
“We had a student who came to us from public school, because it just wasn’t working for him. He felt there was no purpose to going to school, that he was just one person in a sea of people. He received little personal attention; he failed to see the value, and he was struggling with depression. He was kicked out of a public school, and struggled in a larger private school. But because of the nature of our environment, we have focused attention on every student, we see those changes in personality, and behavior. It’s common for a teacher here to notice, and say, ‘Hey, are you ok? What’s going on?’ Suddenly, someone showing the student that they care, he woke up. He started to want to come to school every day. His depression lessened with no medication, and no therapy. It was just in him knowing other people cared about him, and would listen. So simple.”
The Academy strives to give students more control over their education, which might sound counterproductive when dealing with students that struggle in other environments, however, Hibbard noted they have had consistent, positive results.
“We have had students that struggled because in a class of twenty or thirty students, sometimes they go too fast, or too slow, and you can’t give attention to one, when there are twenty-nine others. So here, sometimes classes can be one-on-one, and students can choose their own pace, so every class becomes productive.”
Hibbard furthered this idea, “We let them choose their definition of success, and then we incorporate what they come up with into a high-school curriculum.”
The Academy of Scholars is a high-school level only private school. Their current enrollment consists mainly of students in their final years of high-school, with a minority of students just venturing into the high-school portion of their academics. Mixed classes don’t necessarily follow what traditional schools would mandate, neither for class sequence, nor class structure.
“We only make students sit in class for the minimum amount of time to meet New York State standards, then we say, after that, the rest of the time is yours.”
And with that, students get to explore a wide variety of topics, technology, and activities. Everything from creating a podcast, to designing using computers, and 3D printing technology, to going out into the world, and helping others.
“Life, learning, love, laughter – four sides to the same coin, “Hibbard related as part of his overall educational philosophy, “School should be fun. You should enjoy going. Our value statement is, ‘Help Students, Help People,’ and that’s really what every business is when it comes down to it. Helping people. Solving problems. We don’t like to over-complicate it, and it’s a message we want to carry on with our students as they pass through here. Help everyone.”
The Buffalo Academy of Scholars can be visited online at http://theacademybuffalo.org/. They are currently running a Go Fund me Campaign to reach out to the community for financial support. Information on this campaign can be found at https://www.gofundme.com/buffaloscholars.