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Kids need schools like Enterprise

They call him "Pastor Steve." Monday found the minister on the school's second-floor landing, locked in conversation with a tall kid in the white-shirt-and-khakis school uniform. As "Pastor Steve" Forman talked, the boy nodded.

It was a small moment that told a larger story. The near-daily presence of Forman, and a dozen other mentors, is part of what separates downtown Enterprise Charter School from the Buffalo pack. It started four years ago with a premise: Inner-city kids are up against it. A school needs every weapon in the fight to save them.

After an initial reluctance, the charter school-unfriendly School Board on Wednesday came to its senses and recommended that Enterprise get its five-year license renewed.

Enterprise does things that noncharter schools cannot do. Rules and bureaucracy stifle creativity in traditional public schools. Enterprise can bring the outside world into the building.

There are two social workers, a nurse and a visiting pediatrician. Kids job-shadow at nearby downtown businesses. Students in the K-through-8 school get everything from Spanish lessons to piano instruction. Buffalo State College has a student-teacher office. Filling cracks are classroom aides from AmeriCorps, volunteers from downtown businesses and mentors such as Forman, the minister at Christ Crusaders Assembly Church. He just enrolled his 5-year-old in kindergarten.

"They reach beyond the walls of the school," Forman said. "And there is discipline. Kids are not afraid to go to school. No gang is going to roll up on you, and then the whole classroom explodes. Not here."

Test scores show it is working. Enterprise's kids last year beat the district's average state math test score in every grade. Word has spread. There are 351 kids on the school's waiting list.

Nine of every 10 Enterprise kids are poor enough to get free breakfast and lunch. Two of every three middle-school kids, in the school's first year, came in with multiple suspensions. There are kids who shuffle between foster homes, kids who tell of a relative shot or a parent put in jail. The two social workers earn their pay.

There is a washing machine and dryer in a first-floor cubbyhole. Some homes are so chaotic that kids' clothes do not get washed. Enterprise does laundry.

"You have to help with their social and emotional needs," Enterprise's Laura Dudley said.

It is an experiment in education that should be the rule for inner-city kids. Its creation was sponsored by an enlightened Board of Education. They saw charters not as the enemy, but as a way to uncuff teachers and to free administrators from district bureaucracy and rules.

The innovations spread to traditional schools. The district's Lydia T. Wright School mirrors much of Enterprise.

Most of the enlightened School Board members who backed Enterprise are gone. The new board sadly sees charter schools more as a threat to traditional schools than as a remedy for kids in need. Despite the school's success, the board barely approved -- with the minimal five votes -- the 5-year extension.

It would be nice if the school did not have to serve as a safe haven, a health clinic, a counseling center and a Laundromat. But nice is not reality.

Reality is "Pastor Steve," talking to a troubled kid in the stairwell. Reality is kids who have a parent in jail or a relative who got shot. Reality is kindergartners who come in not knowing their colors. You get that kind of reality, you need every weapon to fight it. That is what happens here, every day.

The test scores show it is working. Test scores tell only part of the tale.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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