A few years back, Elmwood Village Charter School Principal John W. Sheffield looked forward to lottery night, when the names of new students for the upcoming school year were drawn.
“I used to enjoy lottery night, but not anymore. There’s a lot of heartache. There are a lot of desperate families whose children don’t get in through the lottery,” Sheffield said.
Now in its seventh year and settling into a new location in a refurbished former Buffalo public school at 40 Days Park, the diverse, kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school has found that seats in its classrooms are in high demand.
“We have a waiting list of 402 children, and each year about 35 to 40 seats open up after sibling preference is granted,” Sheffield said. “Lottery night in April used to be a way to welcome the new families to our school, but now it’s gut-wrenching, because many leave broken-hearted, knowing there is little or no chance their child will be selected for the new school year.”
Yet the school’s success is gratifying, he says.
The school relocated from crammed quarters at 124 Elmwood Ave. and was able to move all its grades – including sixth, seventh and eighth – under one roof at the former School 36, a two-story red brick building on Days Park, a quaint Allentown green space with a fountain and neighboring Victorian homes.
“We put $2.5 million into the building with funds that mostly came from a mortgage we took to buy the school, and we were able bring our middle-school component from First Presbyterian Church on Symphony Circle to Days Park,” the principal said.
Demand to attend the school has grown as its reputation for success has spread throughout the city, Sheffield and other school supporters say.
The school opened in 2006 with 109 students and currently has 300, with plans to gradually expand to 450 over the next several years.
“When we first opened, nearly every child that transferred in from a Buffalo public school was not meeting social or academic success, or in many cases both,” Sheffield said. “Our first year of operation, those students scored very low on state assessment tests. We also had a 9 percent student suspension rate.
“By the following year with those same students, we nearly doubled our passing results on most assessment tests, and student suspensions dropped from 9 percent to 1.5 percent, even though we added 50 more students. Since our second year, we have been one of the consistently highest performing public schools in Buffalo.”
Sheffield attributes the advances to a roughly 40-member teaching staff that places strong emphasis on fostering social skills through a program called “Responsive Classroom,” which was devised by the Northeast Foundation for Children.
“We believe students cannot achieve high levels of academic success until they first meet with social success. That means a whole lot of things. Children need to learn how to accept responsibility. They need to be good problem solvers. They need to find peaceful and effective ways to solve conflicts and how to be contributing members to the school and wider communities.”
Specifically, he says, teachers are constantly on the lookout for opportunities to improve a child’s social graces.
“If there is a conflict between two children, the teacher will pull them aside and teach them conflict-solving strategy. Today it might be a crayon, but tomorrow it might be something much bigger. Once these kids have the strategy to effectively solve conflicts, they will be much better students and community members,” Sheffield said.
A Dunkirk native, the principal gets high grades from parents.
“John Sheffield is the smartest man I know. He is also very thoughtful, compassionate and kind. The students know they are safe there, even if they make a bad choice. They know they will be treated kindly and decently,” said Lisa Cahill, the mother of three children enrolled at the school.
Cahill says that she is glad she took a chance on the school when it first opened and that her younger children received “sibling preference,” meaning they bypassed the lottery and were automatically accepted because they had an older sibling already at the school.
She sought the charter school alternative, Cahill said, partly because her older daughter, a third-grader at the time, had been assaulted at a traditional public school.
“At Elmwood Village, it’s an eclectic group of students, all different races and cultures, all different socioeconomic backgrounds, but you’d never know it,” Cahill said. “Everyone is the same. Everyone is just grateful to be there.”
While lottery nights have become bittersweet, there is one school-related evening that Sheffield looks forward to: “Evening in the Atrium,” the school’s annual fundraiser, which will be preceded by the official grand opening of the new location.
Tours of the school begin at 6:30 Saturday; the fundraiser follows from 7 to 11. Tickets are $25 in advance and $30 at the door. There will be live music, dancing, a silent auction, wine and beer tastings, appetizers from many Allentown and Elmwood Village restaurants, and artwork for sale.
“It’s an adults-only event, and it is more than a typical fundraiser. It’s a nice night out,” Sheffield said.
For more information, call the school at 886-4581.