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While Buffalonians expect the Bills to put the area on the map, imagine what would happen if NBC had taken its cameras into the Parent Center with as much zeal as it hones in on the football team.

What the public would learn is perhaps the best-kept secret in Buffalo and the key to solving one of the nation's most pressing problems: How to put its disadvantaged children on the track toward academic and social success.

If this country can't solve that vexing problem, it will not compete internationally and it will spend too much on remedial services ever to control the deficit. But worst of all, it will continue robbing children of any chance to build the productive life most others take for granted.

The Parent Center was developed by the Buffalo Public Schools as part of its federal Chapter 1 program for students who need extra help. Described by federal officials as a cutting-edge effort, it could point the nation toward breaking the cycle of underachievement that links one generation to the next.

The $500,000 program is the type that should please both conservatives and liberals. It recognizes parental responsibility, but it also recognizes that parenting skills don't always come naturally and that when appropriate role models are lacking, government can play a helpful role.

In that sense, it bridges the philosophical gap that leads to stalemate in so much of the debate between the left and right.

The center itself belies every stereotype of an urban school facility, and so do the parents who voluntarily come.

Watching them sitting beside 3- or 4-year-olds at computer terminals with age-appropriate instructional games, or paging through a storybook while a video narrator helps with the words, one thing becomes clear: These parents don't love their children any less, or care about their children any less than the affluent. The only difference is that they may lack the resources, or sometimes the skills, to translate that caring into action.

Housed in the Urban League building in downtown Buffalo, the Parent Center helps with both. With its carpeted floors, rooms of computer banks, and partitioned activity areas, it could easily pass for a business office.

Only the wealth of educational toys -- in a setting of stimulative colors, soft background music, plants, and bookshelves in nearly every room -- reveals its real purpose as youngsters are quietly engrossed in activity. It's the type of facility one might expect to find on Long Island -- where they spend umpteen times more per pupil and the kids already start out ahead -- not in an inner city.

Yet that's the whole idea, according to Howard Lewis, assistant superintendent for federal programs who developed the center. The goal is to help these youngsters start school even with other students by helping parents perform tasks -- how to read to the child, develop vocabulary and motor skills, how to correct without discouraging, etc. -- that are taken for granted in other homes. For those who already know, the center offers the resources to put that knowledge to use.

It all sounds simple, and it is -- unless a child grows up in a home without such toys or computers or without parents who know how to use them to make sure their youngsters know how to count, know colors and shapes, have good posture, etc. These are the very types of skills teachers say many disadvantaged kids start school lacking, notes Pilar Jimenez, Chapter 1 supervisor who oversees the center. Many of those youngsters never catch up.

What's a caring, smart society to do about it? Consign the kids to socioeconomic hell for not picking better parents? Or help those parents help their children?

The answer is simple. And even with free transportation and no charge to parents, it's still far less costly than continuing to turn our backs on poor children.

In its fourth year, the Parent Center is only now reaching the point where its effectiveness can begin to be measured. But it cannot help but have an impact, both with its in-center programs and by lending parents materials and computers to take home or sending aides into the home.

Ricco Harris can see the difference in his 1- and 2-year-olds, who want to replicate the center's learning activities as soon as they get home.

"So they stay out of the TV and they learn more," said Harris. "(And) when they get older, they won't mind going to school. That's very important."

Even something as seemingly simple as snack-time in the facility's kitchen is actually practice for dining as a family (with no TV) or learning how to use a napkin, knife and fork so the kids and parents will be comfortable when the group goes out in public, as it does often on field trips and dinners.

These are the experiences that shape well-rounded youngsters. Many families can take them for granted, but others can't. The Parent Center fills the gap.

In fact, one could easily forget that some of these are supposed to be disadvantaged children. After watching them stimulated in this environment, it's clear the only disadvantage they might ever face is lack of opportunity. The $500,000 is a bargain compared to the cost of losing these children. This Buffalo effort is something for President Clinton to take note of if he wants to be the education president George Bush never was.

ROD WATSON is a News editorial writer.

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