Katie Campos is the Executive Director of Buffalo’s chapter of Teach For America.
A little background
I was born right in the city, the youngest of four siblings. My dad is from Cuba – he is a photographer; my mom is from South Buffalo – she is a teacher. My parents placed a very high value on education, first sending us to Campus West, which was a great school, and then to Nichols where we were fortunate enough to get scholarships. I was very present to the costs and benefits of Buffalo’s education system. As a student at Nichols, I was very aware of the cost of my education, down to the cost of a math class I missed for not being at school. At Nichols, we (students) talked about which colleges we were going to beginning in 5th grade. Most of the kids I grew up with went to City Honors, or they didn’t graduate from high school – there was no middle ground. Seeing and experiencing the impact of a high quality education really stuck with me.
Getting involved in the education system
I went to Washington University in St. Louis. Most of my friends joined Teach For America after graduation, and I lived with them in New York City where I worked for Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). Right after Obama was elected in 2008, DFER provided feedback on what became Race to the Top. I used that as an opportunity to learn everything I could about federal education policy so that I can contribute. The main thing I learned is that while policy can be well intended and beautifully crafted, it cannot work without the community steering the process – from drafting to implementation. Without the community’s investment, nothing changes.
I started exploring why our education system operates the way that it does, and why policy won’t change it. It comes down to root issues of poverty and racism. It comes down to the systemic inequity, driven by racism, manifested in poverty and inequitable access.
With this understanding, and the belief in the unlimited potential of people, I moved home to Buffalo to start organizing parents and students to lend their voice to improving our schools. I didn’t have a salary, and I wasn’t a part of a formal organization. I just started organizing – standing outside of Buffalo Public and Charter Schools before and after school to talk to parents. They wanted to tell their story.
We started holding informal meetings with parents and we quickly grew – holding a meeting of a few hundred people at Buff State. So, we applied for non-profit status and launched Buffalo ReformED as a vehicle to organize parents and create policies based on what they wanted. We drafted a Parents Bill of Rights, because it became clear that most of our parents just didn’t know what their rights are, so they didn’t access or leverage them in the same way that parents from the suburbs know how to do.
The main impact that I think Buffalo Reform Ed had was that we highlighted what was happening in our schools. At the time the newspaper was not covering education at all. Many people had no idea what was happening in our school system. Ignorance was bliss.
Between TFA and Buffalo ReformED I served in Governor Andrew M. Cuomo’s office as his Assistant Secretary for Education. It was good and hard work, though I missed being proximate to the issues and to my city.
I actually read in the Buffalo News that Buffalo Public was exploring a partnership with Teach for America. I’ve always thought that it’s more about people than policy. I called them up and I told them if we are going to do this that there needs to be community buy-in. I was hired in the fall of 2013, and we launched with 15 corps members in the fall of 2014.
What is Teach For America?
Teach For America recruits our most promising future leaders – recent college graduates with leadership characteristics and qualities. We provide training and support as they serve for at least 2 years as full-time teachers in our highest needs schools and subject areas, like Bilingual Spanish, English as a Second Language, etc. TFA teachers work relentlessly to build relationships with their students, hold them to very high standards, and work with them to ensure they are successful. The act of teaching is one of the most powerful leadership acts.
To tie this into my belief that inequity in our education system is rooted in racism and poverty, I recognize that we all, myself included, harbor biases that we are not addressing…that policy cannot address. These biases manifest in an inequitable education system. For example, it is an unfortunate reality that many of our schools, and much of our city, is not as welcoming to black, brown, ESL and refugee kids. This is true, even though all of our teachers have the very best interests of our students at heart. Why? Because of inherent bias. Racism, bias, is the smog we all breathe. At TFA, we address this through reflection and affinity space. We work to understand context, collaborate with others, reflect and try again…always trying to do better.
The Black Lives Matter movement has provided so much information through data and also through story telling about the impact of racism and bias on our community. Because of BLM, our students and teachers are more aware of systemic racism, its impact, and how it manifests. We utilize this information to share with our teachers frequently.
The education system is a manifestation of the beliefs and biases we harbor. Until we address it, and do the really hard work to dismantle our own biases, it will be nearly impossible for all of our kids to be on a path to success. Through TFA, through leadership development, we are exploring and breaking down these biases so we can be better teachers for our students.
How is TFA funded?
Teach For America Buffalo is funded through local philanthropic and private giving – 100% of our funds are raised locally. Our largest funders include Robert Wilmers and M&T Bank, The John R. Oishei Foundation and The Cullen Foundation.
My role has become much easier, because we are starting to see Teach For America’s impact in Buffalo. We’ve always wanted to show and not tell our impact. Just launching in 2014, we are seeing our results – TFA teachers are respected by their principals and colleagues, and making gains with their students. TFA Alum are moving home to Buffalo to launch and lead high performing schools. Teach For America Buffalo corps members are humble, resilient and persistent – they want to be a part of a movement, in partnership with Buffalo teachers and Say Yes, where Buffalo is the fastest improving urban school system in our history.
I have experienced a dramatic improvement in our schools in the past few years – under Dr. Cash’s leadership, and with partners like Say Yes, the culture within our schools is improving. We have the hardest working teachers and the smartest students. So now, let’s make history.
What is your greatest area of need?
I want Buffalo to know what Teach For America does. Like I said, we are humble – we’ve worked hard to build relationships and collaborate with people who have been doing this work far before we got here. We want to engage in difficult conversations that will make all of us better. Even if you disagree with TFA, let’s talk about it. Only through real collaboration will we become the fastest improving education system in the country. Say Yes cannot do it alone. Teach For America cannot do it alone.
In my experience, especially in education, you have to be willing to talk to the person that disagrees with you most because from that you can create the best plan for going forward. Let’s be really clear about what we want the outcome to be, and then identify our unique roles.
What would you tell a younger version of yourself?
The most important lesson I’ve learned is the difference between managing and leading. It is paramount to always empower people. I would’ve told myself, ‘you are ambitious, you want to move mountains, and you are going to work hard. We go far together, we go fast alone. And don’t take yourself too seriously.’