For over 50 years, the Buffalo Educational Opportunity Center (BEOC) has been in the forefront of building a ladder out of poverty -- through education -- for economically and educationally disadvantaged citizens in Western New York residents. UBEOC began as a vehicle for non-traditional students to prepare for college and employment. Over time UBEOC has expanded its mission of serving disadvantaged adults into an integrated system of education, student support services, and demand-driving vocational training programs that lead to entry-level job placement, career track employment in information technology, and employed in alled health.
The UBEOC also offers targeted services to business and industries to upgrade the skills of incumbent workers, collaborate with secondary schools to assist in the academic preparation of youth-at-risk, provide intergenerational learning programs to strengthen families, and narrow the digital divide in lower income communities by placing technology where it is accessible.
The New York State EOC's annually enroll about 16,000 students, with Buffalo's share about 2,000. Sixty percent of these students are enrolled in academic programs such as Academic Review (Basic Education), English as a Second Language (ESL), GED, and College Preparation. Though precise percentages vary from year to year, approximately 60 percent receive public assistance. The remainder of the student body consists of disadvantaged (unemployed, underemployed) workers, youth in search of a GED or employment training, and recently arrived immigrants whose efforts to carve out a place in American society begin with ESL classes.
However, numbers are only part of the UBEOC's story. Real names and faces underscore the value of an UBEOC education: Laurie, who went from the GED Program to a teaching degree and a job in Vancouver; Julie, who began in the GED Program and obtained a master's degree in Speech Pathology; Sharon, who went from College Prep to teaching high school English; Gloria, who cried on her second day in a GED class but went on to become an RN, a homeowner, and the mother of a college graduate; Dennis and Tommie, who both went from College Prep to college employees; Archie, who went from College Prep to city councilman and firefighter; Lourdes, who went from Dental Assisting to dental offices and eventually executive director of a major cultural organization; and countless others who work in dental and medical offices, stores and schools, and other business and agencies and identify themselves as EOC alumni when they get the chance.
The stories don't end with names, degrees and jobs. The story of UBEOC encompasses entire lives and communities. About 15 years after one UBEOC faculty member donated his sports jacket so one of his students could dress for a job interview, he attended that student's funeral, after an unexpected illness claimed the man in his 40's. The church was packed, the once homeless man having gained a wife and children and a great many friends since his student days. The professor was surprised to see the undertaker and the minister had also been his students at UBEOC, as had several mourners.
No matter how strong the connections with its host institution, the University at Buffalo, UBEOC is in and its community, neither detached from the people it serves nor seen as part of some remote and vague notion of learning as the path to achievement. The UBEOC makes real education and real success a tangible possibility for everyone lifting the community one success story at a time.
In 1966, the legislature appropriated funds through SUNY to establish the Urban Centers program to provide post-secondary, non-degree education and training for the disadvantaged whose needs were unmet by existing colleges and programs. Under the leadership of Dr. James Smoot, the four original Urban Centers (Brooklyn, Manhattan, Capital District, and Buffalo) and two subsequent additions (Rochester and Farmingdale) offered occupational preparation programs.
In 1969, SUNY undertook another endeavor to extend services to New York's disadvantaged populations. Under the sponsorship of higher education institutions in the areas served, seven Cooperative College Centers (CCC) were created to offer beginning college level and remedial programs in areas where such efforts were needed most: Wyandanch, Mount Vernon, Westchester, Nassau, Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo. Though the CCCs were intended to serve a purpose different than the Urban Centers, those differences diminished over time and reached the point where services were being duplicated. Finally, in 1973, the Urban Centers and the CCCs were merged to form the more comprehensive Educational Opportunity Centers Program.
The Buffalo Urban Center, administered by Erie Community College, was located on the third floor of the Jackson Building at 220 Delaware Avenue in downtown Buffalo. Headed by Montford Schrader of the Erie Community College Mechanical Department, the Urban Center offered courses in Dental Assisting, Typing, Keypunch Operation, Drafting, and GED. The Buffalo Cooperative College Center, administered by the University at Buffalo, was also located downtown at the old Remington Rand Building, 465 Washington Street. Headed by Dr. Arthur S. Anderson, educator and lawyer, the CCC used innovative educational techniques (team teaching, open classrooms, individualized instruction) to prepare its students for higher education. Before the two programs merged in 1973, Dr. Anderson set the tone for what would become the Educational Opportunity Center. "We began August 15 with one desk and a dream," Dr. Anderson said in a Courier Express article dated September 22, 1970, "and now we have all this."
By "all this," Dr. Anderson was referring to four floors of a six-story building, a staff of 28, and a plan to serve 600 students with courses in reading, math, English, science, and social science. Then associate director Eugene Thomas noted an "underestimation of the interest of young people in advancing themselves." But the CCC was devoted to recognizing and developing unrecognized academic talent and placed 378 of its students in Western New York colleges by the end of the first year.
When the UBEOC was formed, it had a dual tradition of vocational training and academic preparation. Headquartered at 465 Washington Street, the operation was expanded to include all six floors, as well as a section of the basement that housed the Graphic Arts Program, and began to award certificates in its various programs at an annual Achievement Day ceremony.
In the 1970s-, with a staff that was largely young and idealistic, the UBEOC endeavored to establish itself as a credible institution of adult learning. Often, faculty and counselors in their 20s and 30s found themselves younger than some of the students they served, including veterans or displaced workers who lacked high school diplomas or older students who had always wanted to attend college. Others were stay-at-home mothers who wanted college or vocational training for themselves now that their children were grown. Still others were social services recipients determined to break the cycle of poverty and dependence. Many came to UBEOC in search of basic education to improve their reading and math abilities, or to earn high school diplomas, then stayed for College Prep or training in the nationally certified Dental Assisting Program, Graphic Arts, Secretarial Science, Data Entry, or Business Prep.
Walls were erected, changing the open classrooms of the CCC into more traditional classrooms-, with blackboards, chalk and desks or tablet chairs. Still, the education inside those classrooms was never traditional, as faculty and counselors all recognized that adult learners with adult experiences and concerns brought new ingredients to the chemistry of the classroom and the counseling session. Rather than adhere to the traditional model of the teacher imparting knowledge directly to those who did not know something, UBEOC faculty learned how to integrate adult experience into classroom approaches that permitted students and faculty alike to learn from each other. In addition to the standing curriculum, short courses or seminars were offered in such interests as public speaking, science fiction, and human sexuality. Counselors, increasingly aware of external circumstances that shaped a student's capacity for success, learned to interact with students holistically. In its first few years, UBEOC evolved from what was perceived internally and externally as a glorified high school for adults into a learning center that met the unique, complex needs of the adult learner.
The 1980s marked the beginning of a slow explosion of technology in UBEOC classrooms. Many matches lit the fuse for that explosion. First, several instructors brought their brand-new home computers (including the Radio Shack TRS 80, the Atari 800 XL, the Commodore 64) into school to experiment with lessons displayed on televisions borrowed from the UBEOC library. After UBEOC opened its first computer lab (with the Apple II), one of the first computer-based writing classes in Western New York was taught there. By the end of the late 1980s, computers (Apples and PCs) were in many classrooms. Data Entry and Secretarial Science were disappearing, to be replaced eventually by Business Office Technology.
While UBEOC continued Dental Assisting and the core academic programs -- Basic Education (later Academic Review), GED, and College Prep -- in the 1990s the school became more responsive to the needs of regional employers. Advisory Boards for Dental Assisting and Vocational Training became an active part of fulfilling the UBEOC's mission as volunteer professionals gave their time and expertise to students and staff alike. UBEOC became home to a Head Start program and developed partnerships with business, other agencies, public schools, and colleges. Classroom technology continued to expand, which led to an increasing number of students becoming self-directed learners. Faculty and staff collaborated with each other more and more, not only to get students jobs or college placements but also to get them emergency services, basic necessities, and outside assistance. In the mid-1990s, UBEOC faculty were finally made part of the professoriate, with Assistant and Associate Professorships for UBEOC, and, in a few cases, full Professorships. Finally, Achievement Day was renamed Graduation Day.
In the first decade of the 21st century, what long ago had been the College Prep Health-Related Program resurfaced in such offerings as Certified Nursing Assistant, Pharmacy Technology, and Medical Office Assistant. A Distance Learning Lab opened on the third floor and was used to offer and participate in distance learning events, from college-readiness seminars and teleconferences to creative writing and regularly scheduled SAT classes for several Western New York high schools. UBEOC became a certified GED testing center and began to offer GED practice testing to the public. As immigrants came in greater numbers to Western New York, the English as a Second Language Program grew exponentially and UBEOC satellites were established at 290 Main Street and other sites like the Martha Mitchell and Delavan-Grider Community Centers. One of the goals of the satellites, as well as the ATTAIN lab inside the UBEOC, was to lessen the digital divide that limited the access of disadvantaged populations to information technology and 21st century job skills.
By now it was apparent that 465 Washington -- erected in 1904, according to the Sanborn insurance map in the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library -- was growing increasingly unsuitable for a 21st century institution of advanced learning. Two committees -- one administrative, the other faculty and staff -- were formed to explore the possibility of moving the UBEOC to another location. Years of studying and walking through various locations in downtown Buffalo led to an inescapable truth: if UBEOC wanted a modern facilitiy, it would have to be built. The push from UBEOC administrators and advisory board members on one hand, and the push from faculty and staff documentation of building problems and testimony for SUNY trustees in Albany on the other, led to the new building at 555 Ellicott.
As the UBEOC enters its new location, it does so with a wider than ever range of programs (Academic Review, GED Assessment, College Preparation, English as a Second Language, CNA Recertification and Testing, Dental Assisting, Registered Medical Assisting, Medical Lab Tech, Medical Billing and Coding, the ATTAIN lab and Computer Training, and Environmental Restoration) and services (Career Planning and Placement, National Work Readiness Credentialing, Civil Service Exam Prep, and income tax assistance through the VITA Tax Project).
What began as a 1960s dream has become 21st century reality, an educational mainstay and a cornerstone of the UB presence in downtown Buffalo.
Edited from a "Brief History of UBEOC" by Professor Gary Earl Ross (Retired) - 2013