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Supporters dispute assessment of Stepping Stone Academy

To hear administrators, board members, teachers, parents and students tell it, Stepping Stone Academy Charter School is far from the dismal failure state officials described last week in recommending that it be shut down.

Speaker after speaker at an emotional public forum Wednesday testified that the East Ferry Street school has emerged from chaos over the last two years -- a change reflected in improved student performance -- and urged that its charter be extended for at least two years.

When he arrived in January 2004 to teach fourth grade, Nicholas Paterson told members of the Charter Schools Institute, "I didn't see a principal or administrator until the following June."

But a new management team made up of Betty Davis -- a consultant brought in by Edison Schools to turn around the troubled academy -- Principal William Boatwright and Academy Director Deana Stevenson has improved security, discipline, instruction and -- as a result -- student performance, Paterson said.

As a result, his class "came up with quite a performance" in the most recent tests, he said, though under state rules the scores cannot be made public until later this year.

News that the state Charter School Institute recommended against renewing Stepping Stone's initial five-year charter jolted first-grade teacher Shannon Krug, who could not find words to explain the decision to her class.

It has become a school where "students believe in themselves," and that "gives them the tools they need to be successful," Krug said. "Past records do not reflect the school we are now."

Detra McTier of Medaille College told representatives of the state monitoring agency that Boatwright, Stevenson and Davis should be applauded for bettering the school's performance.

"It's a shame they are being held accountable for what happened in 2001 to 2004," she said. "They are talking the talk and walking the walk. They need another three years."

Shaquille Dudley, who graduated in 2004 and is now on full scholarship at Cardinal O'Hara High School, said Stepping Stone was "chaotic" when he arrived but improved when better teachers were hired.

Those teachers "motivated all of us to do better," he said. "Who knows where I'd be if they hadn't? I'd probably be standing around on the corner."

The idea of Stepping Stone shutting down was too much to bear for Brittany Taggart, a fourth-grader, and her mother, Sonseare, one of the school's founding parents."If the school closes, I don't know what I'll do," Brittany said.

"My heart is in this school," her mother said, breaking into tears. "We want these kids to soar like this eagle," she said, pointing to the symbol on the school flag.

If the Charter Schools Institute is upheld by the State University of New York this month, the school in a converted department store at 909 E. Ferry would be the first Buffalo-area charter school to be shut down.

The advisory group said just one of Stepping Stone's 67 fourth-graders passed an English language arts state assessment test in 2004, and only four or five passed the test the following year. Despite that poor showing, he said, the school lacked an effective remedial program for pupils in grades 5 and 6. Though the school challenged the recommendation at Wednesday's forum and is urging parents, teachers and others to send protest letters and petitions to Albany, it faces long odds. Neither SUNY's Charter Schools Committee nor the full SUNY board has ever overruled a Charter Schools Institute recommendation.

e-mail: tbuckham@buffnews.com

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