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Members of the Buffalo School Board expressed excitement Tuesday over a conceptual plan for a downtown education center that would bring as many as 5,000 students, faculty and business people to the heart of city while providing professional development programs for high school students.

The new center, which would be built on a site bounded by Washington, East Mohawk and Ellicott streets and Broadway, would be a collaborative effort involving the school system, area State University of New York institutions and Barrister Information Systems Corp.

It could become a reality within the next four years, David Stieglitz, a confidential aide to Mayor Masiello, told the board.

But board members, while expressing enthusiasm for the concept, were cautious about how the plan will fit into their overhaul of the city's high schools and how it will effect students.

"I'm very excited about the proposal here, but I would like to see this complex become a hub that serves all our high schools," North District member Sherry L. Byrnes said during the committee work session in City Hall.

"I think as an add-on it's wonderful, but it does not supplant what this district should be doing for its high schools," said Central District member Jan Peters.

"This is a wonderful idea, but where are the students going to come from ? Who is it going to serve, and what happens to the other high schools?" asked Park District member Jack Coyle.

"This really is doable, this can become a reality, and it is not a separate project from our ongoing planning for high schools," said Samuel J. Alessi Jr., assistant superintendent for curriculum.

He gave board members an overview of a staff planning process to revamp the city's high schools that has been going on for about two years. District planners, with input from high school principals, are looking at developing secondary-school programs to deal with information technology, environmental studies, health and medical services, and international relations and entrepreneurship.

The themes of the new high schools are still being fleshed out, and board members were invited Tuesday night to add names to a list for committee members to work on the high school restructuring. Alessi said work on some projects is already progressing, and he said the downtown center with a professional development school could be one of the first new high schools to be developed.

"This professional development school would be the first in the nation," Stieglitz said, adding that new buildings on the site would house classroom space for the school and stand next to a new Educational Opportunity Center building. A building where Barrister repairs computers would be incorporated into the plan, and connections with the Central Library at Lafayette Square would be possible.

"We will find resources for this so that it doesn't encumber money that you've already committed," Stieglitz said, explaining that the new construction could be funded through a federal aid and funds UB has committed to refurbish the center at 465 Washington St. He said it would help UB gain a greater role in the city.

Board President Marlies A. Wesolowski of the East District also praised the concept, saying it will energize people and get them talking about the schools. She noted that while the system is bulging at the elementary level, it is loosing high school-age students to suburban districts.

"I'm hoping that this committee will hit the ground running and put together some sequential, substantial things we can do," Mrs. Wesolowski said, adding that she would like to see new programming in the high schools by September, if possible.

School Superintendent James Harris said he felt the board's comments were an endorsement to continue the planning process.

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