Education 2011: Stacey Watson
Building a nation of "drop-ins"
With a graduation rate of just over forty-seven percent in 2010, Buffalo’s public schools clearly have a great deal of work to do. Systemic change can be incremental and painfully slow, however. Enter Stacey Watson, co-creator of the Drop-In Nation Curriculum, and from 2002-2011, executive director of the South Buffalo Education Center. Watson is someone who hasn’t simply shaken her head disparagingly at the number of students who don’t finish high school in Buffalo—she’s someone who has lived the change she wants to see.
Watson has maintained the highest General Equivalency Diploma accreditation rate in New York State through her work in alternative education over the past decade. In 2002, she became director of the South Buffalo Education Center and began working with adults who had never completed high school or attained their GED.
“I have graduated over 600 students through the [Drop-In] program,” Watson says. “It was built utilizing a collaborative model I developed with Erie Community College, Buffalo Public Schools Adult Education, Buffalo Building Trades, the First Time Last Time Program, the C.O.U.R.T.S Program, Cornell University Extension, the University at Buffalo Graduate School of Social Work, the Department of Social Services, and multiple smaller human service entities.”
Watson firmly believes in the efficacy of her approach in helping students, and she’s got both the numbers and the anecdotes to support that. Five of her students have been awarded the New York State Outstanding Student of the Year award. Watson explains that the winners included “a young man who was selling and addicted to drugs and never completed one day of high school; he is now the first graduate of the Leadership Buffalo program to hold a GED, complete college, and own a small business. Another young man was labeled learning disabled and ended up working for me for six years. The third young man (whose entire family is in Puerto Rico) went from a fourth grade reading level to college level in six months. The fourth young man overcame learning disabilities to gain his GED and join the Army, where he earned two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star and was sadly lost in the line of duty in 2007. And the fifth young man moved here from another state after being addicted to serious drugs, scored the highest I have ever seen on his GED, and is now enrolled in college.”
What’s evident from these stories is that Watson’s approach has reached young people that others dismissed as unreachable, and that she is enormously proud of the success of her students. Almost three-quarters of her students go directly to college, the work force, or another training program upon graduation. Some have enrolled and graduated from college (including Buffalo State College, SUNY Fredonia, Alfred State College, and Villa Maria College) or have enrolled and served in the United States Military (including the army, navy, and the army national guard).
Watson and Susan Mendel-Hausman, a retired principal who also spent many years as a professor of Educational Administration at the University at Buffalo Graduate School of Education, developed and refined the Drop-In Nation Curriculum over several years, using a framework of holistic education. Watson notes, “The curriculum is built around six core areas beginning with self-esteem and ending with education. It utilizes pedagogical and literary theory blended with references to rich and diverse cultural texts to reach our nation’s most disenfranchised students and the educators that serve them. [It also incorporates] the idea of ‘intellectual family,’ a term I coined soon after beginning my work with out-of-school youth.”
This intellectual family is particularly important for out-of-school youth who want to get their GED. At the present time, there is no state education funding available for students who want to “drop back in” to an educational setting and earn a proficiency degree. Watson laments that “many Adult Education entities are strapped to take care of such students because their organizations receive no funding for them. These students can, however, go on to wonderful careers and economically engaging activities.” Conversations with Watson are peppered with examples of such students: the former troublemaker who is now a Criminal Justice graduate of Monroe Community College and has returned to Buffalo to take the Police Department examination; the current Erie Community College student who was awarded the City of Buffalo Ricky Costner, Jr. Youth Character Award in 2010 and who logged hundreds of volunteer hours on the Extreme Makeover Home Edition project on Buffalo’s West Side.
As part of their participation in Drop-In Nation, all of the students participate in some form of volunteering prior to graduation. Watson explains, “The Drop-In Nation intellectual family provides students with the opportunity to connect with significant adult mentors who can provide the guidance and community that, particularly during heightened stress and crisis, can be a steady support system as our young people take the very difficult step of reconnecting with education. As we build an intellectual family it is important to volunteer together to gain a sense of teamwork and accomplishment that transcends the classroom. Volunteering builds a sense of community that my students crave. We all just want to be a part of something special, something meaningful, and my students are no different. The more we work together as a team, the more open communication and trust is built, and trust is the most important foundation of Drop-In Nation.”
When Watson met Mendel-Hausman in 2003, the two began a fruitful collaboration that eventually led to the creation of Drop-In Nation. Watson credits Mendel-Hausman with mentoring and guiding her over the past eight years. The success they have experienced led them to create the Drop-In Nation Education Center of Downtown Buffalo, which serves youth and unemployed or underemployed adults. They are also currently developing the Drop-In Nation Education Centers of West Buffalo and East Buffalo. Also, inspired by the deep need she witnessed after Hurricane Katrina, Watson is working to establish a Drop-In Nation Education Center of New Orleans. Both Watson and Mendel-Hausman are confident that Drop-In Nation is a replicable model, one that will provide school systems, adult education programs, and not-for-profit agencies alike with tools to reach academic milestones with “at-risk” populations.
So what about Watson herself? Her list of accolades is impressive. She was the youngest person ever nominated for the NYS Board of Regents, and she currently serves on the Governor’s Statewide Organization Team on School Engagement and Drop-Out Prevention. She was also recently appointed to the NYS Education Department’s Alternative Education Steering Committee; she is co-chair of the Erie County Re-entry Task Force Education Subcommittee; she was named Educator of the Year in 2006; and is a Leadership Buffalo Rising Leaders 2008 graduate. Watson speaks eloquently about her passion for improving educational access for youth and supporting the educators who serve them. “Many years ago,” she recalls, “I began teaching GED classes with the Buffalo Public Schools Adult Education Division and immediately felt a special connection to the students. Students who drop out or are removed from school often have so much going on in their lives that school falls by the wayside. This does not mean, however, that these students are not intelligent. It is criminal to cast aside the incredible drive, hunger, and intelligence my students have. These beautiful young minds are essential members of our community, and as such it is truly a blessing to honor and nurture them.”
To learn more about Stacey Watson, Susan Mendel-Hausman, Drop-In Nation, and what you can do to support this crucial work, visit www.dropinnation.com.
Rachel Fix Dominguez is a Buffalo native who believes the people of WNY are simply terrific.