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A task force will be named in early January to tackle the problem of strengthening the sixth, seventh and eighth grades at the five Catholic elementary schools in Niagara Falls, the superintendent of Catholic education said Thursday night.

Ronald Cook announced the task force after a closed-door meeting Thursday to discuss declining enrollment and rising costs in those three grades.

"We all agreed it makes sense to take a collective approach to this, look at these problems together," Cook said. "We decided to adopt a regional approach to strengthen those grades."

He emphasized he is not talking about a regional elementary school for the city parishes. Two years ago the Niagara Falls parishes made a study of regionalization and rejected the idea.

"They decided they would rather strengthen their parish schools," he said. "They've got great parental involvement, they're getting greater financial support, the parents are indicating greater satisfaction with the schools."

And that is the way they would like to continue, he said, although there are problems that need to be addressed, primarily overcrowding in preschool and vacancies in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades.

Three of the five schools said they have waiting lists for the early grades, Cook said, and one solution may be to exchange information so youngsters who don't get into those schools are directed to the other two.

"We've got a very large number of students waiting to enter our preschool," Cook said. "We haven't been able to take them all. (But) we have vacancies in the upper grades.

"We're trying to get at that problem of waiting lists and turning away students in lower grades," he continued. "Maybe we'll have to open up more classrooms in the lower grades."

He said the task force will be trying to determine how many of the children placed on waiting lists don't enter Catholic schools at all.

One method to strengthen the three affected grades, he said, could be a middle-level coordinator. In a typical parish school, Cook said, a math teacher might have only three classes of math and thus probably teaches another subject as well.

One thing a coordinator might do is schedule the teachers so they teach in their specialties at more than one school, perhaps spending a half day at each of two schools.

The meeting at Niagara University in Lewiston brought together about 50 people, including principals of the schools and representatives of most of the parishes in Niagara County, Cook said. Bishop Edward D. Head of the Buffalo Diocese also attended.

"I was very encouraged by this meeting," said Cook, adding that he thinks the problems can be solved without a regional school.

"The people in Niagara Falls would prefer to strengthen the middle-school concept in a K-8 approach."

He expects to name the task force in early January and hopes its work will be completed by Easter.

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