Joelle Formato, Founder and Head of School
Buffalo, New York

Persistence Preparatory Academy

A Cause for Change
Just days into her teaching placement for Teach for America, Joelle Formato became aware of just how much her students were struggling. “I had middle school students who were full of potential but reading on a first grade level and didn’t see school as a place where they could be successful.” Determined to have a more systemic impact, she returned to her hometown of Buffalo to become a counselor at a public high school. Yet the same challenges arose. “I saw high school students who were unprepared for college and dropping out. I was frustrated by meeting kids so late in their educational career. At that point, there was only so much I could change.”

Flipping the Script
In 2018, Joelle founded Persistence Preparatory Academy in Buffalo, New York. Currently serving 270 K-4 students in an economically disadvantaged area, Persistence Prep prioritizes partnership with its community. “We work with families who aren’t always respected in their child’s educational process. We want to flip that script and empower families to be a huge part of our school.” Initially, Persistence shared a church building with three other businesses, a crowded and unsustainable arrangement. Persistence purchased its own building, but the space needed substantial renovations. The school connected with Civic Builders, through whom they received a $7.6 million FIF loan, significant financial support they likely would not have received otherwise. “Buffalo has no facility financing for charter schools so we’re completely on our own. Finding the right partner who understands specifically younger charter schools, was a huge win for us.”

A Vision Come to Life
The new building had monumental impact. “It’s eight times larger so we were finally able to design the space to meet the needs of the school community. Typically an investment of this size would create gentrification, but to have this just for the people who live in this neighborhood is huge.” The new building is full of natural light and includes a mindfulness room, a dance studio, a library and larger classrooms with updated technology. The 22 classrooms will allow Persistence to grow its student population to 490 students, nearly doubling its original size. A parent engagement room also enables Persistence to maintain meaningful relationships with its families. “We finally have a space where our vision can actually play out and live.”

While Joelle’s extensive educational background has greatly influenced her desire to foster reform, it’s her own childhood, influenced by the disparities of her home city, that continues to inspire her. “I grew up 15 minutes from Persistence and had a dramatically different public school experience. Nothing that I did other than my zip code allowed me to have access to high-quality public education. For this country to succeed, it can’t be a system of have’s and have-not’s, which is really what gets me fired up in the morning.”

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