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The perception: Buffalo runs a two-tier school system where magnet schools thrive at the expense of neighborhood-based schools.

The reality: The quality of the city's 52 elementary schools varies greatly, and it's not as simple as magnet vs. neighborhood schools.

The best schools boast some of the brightest pupils, most modern facilities and most distinctive academic programs in Western New York. The worst function as much as warehouses as schools; their dreary environments and tired programs produce scores of graduates who fall flat on their faces in high school.

Whether the school is a magnet or a non-magnet school -- these are early childhood centers, academies and neighborhood schools -- is sometimes besides the point. There are some poor magnet schools and some terrific non-magnet schools -- particularly many of the early childhood centers.

Yet non-magnet schools -- which educate two-thirds of the city's pupils -- generally aren't as successful as magnet schools.

There are two primary reasons:

First, magnet schools were established with philosophies that gave them distinctive personalities and their staffs clear objectives and direction. Of the non-magnet schools, only the early childhood centers operate with such clearly defined objectives. Other non-magnet schools, for the most part, have been allowed to drift.

"Neighborhood schools and academies are not a priority," said Jacqueline Morana, principal of Houghton Academy. "We have not gotten the support we were promised in the beginning."

Second is the difference between pupils who attend magnet and non-magnet schools. Those who attend
non-magnet schools tend to be more disadvantaged -- because of poverty or difficulties in their home life. And disadvantaged children are more likely to be poor learners.

"To the extent there is a two-tier system, it's not because magnet schools are institutionally better schools than non-magnets, but because magnets attract parents who are more knowledgeable about the schools and who have greater educational ambitions for their children," said Carol Streiff, who has monitored the district's compliance with the federal desegregation order on behalf of the plaintiffs.

"That's a natural phenomenon and a national problem," she added. "Every system that has magnets is dealing with it."

Pupils attending magnet schools post significantly higher scores -- from 1 to 5 percent over the national average -- on standardized tests that measure basic reading and math skills. Those who attend early childhood centers also fare well, scoring 3 percent higher than the national average. Pupils attending the other non-magnet schools fell below the national norms -- by 9 percent among the neighborhood elementary schools and by 11 percent among the academies.

The numbers show that bright pupils are succeeding in non-magnet schools, however. For example, half of the district's high-achieving pupils -- those who score in the top 15 percent on standardized tests -- attend non-magnet schools.

Centers stick to the plan

A happy birthday greeting over the public address system won't do at School 17 on West Delavan Avenue near Main Street.

Instead, Principal Gillis Watson personally serenades the birthday boy or girl.

Welcome to an early childhood center.

The city's nine centers, with some 6,000 pupils, feature good facilities and a sound program in addition to tender loving care. The centers have succeeded since being established in 1980 because they developed a plan and stuck to it.

The centers are limited to young children, starting with full-day prekindergarten programs through second grade.

Academics and evaluations lie at the heart of the centers. All children entering school are screened to determine their strengths, needs and learning styles. Centers design a learning profile and plan for how each child will be taught.

The curriculum is geared toward developing creative and critical thinking skills and introducing children to reading, math, science and social studies through hands-on experiences.

Good facilities are an important part of the mix. A handful need work, and some are overcrowded. But on the whole, the centers provide children a bright, engaging environment.

A life-size cutout of Big Bird greets visitors at School 54 on Main Street near Jewett Parkway. Children's artworks line the yellow-tiled halls. Most classrooms have computers.

The majority of centers also benefit from strong parent involvement, and, thanks largely to U.S. District Judge John T. Curtin, the centers still have sufficient staff to carry out their program.

Every class is assigned an aide to assist the teacher, and every school has a coordinator to help teachers with curriculum and training. The district has attempted to reduce the number of aides twice over the years because of budget constraints, but Curtin has ordered that the aides stay.

Test scores indicate the early childhood center pupils perform well.

First- and second-grade pupils from early childhood centers demonstrate better reading and math skills than pupils from other schools, according to standardized test scores. Early childhood centers have more high-achieving pupils and fewer low-achieving youngsters than other schools.

Moreover, those test scores are 3 percent higher than the national average, an impressive figure considering the impoverished background of so many pupils.

"It's probably one of the most effective programs ever designed in this district and one that has remained consistent over the years," said Marion Canedo, state teacher of the year in 1979 and now director of early childhood centers and academies.

Disappointment in academies

If the district gives children a good head start in early childhood centers, it pulls the rug out from under these same youngsters when they enter the academies in the third grade.

The district established early childhood centers and academies in the early 1980s as a vehicle to help desegregate schools. The concept was to place the early childhood centers in the inner city and encourage white parents to send their children by providing a top-flight education. In third grade, the pupils move on to academies located in mostly white neighborhoods that educate them through eighth grade. The centers and academies are supposed to use curriculum and learning strategies that complement each other.

It looked good on paper. But the plan wasn't followed through, and the results are disappointing. Compared with pupils in the other types of elementary schools, those attending academies:

Have the lowest test scores. The average score on standardized tests measuring reading and math skills shows a 23 percent drop-off between early childhood centers and academies. The scores indicate that, on average, the math and language skills of academy pupils are about one year behind grade level. Many pupils, of course, display reading and math skills at or above their grade level.

Are in greatest need of help to improve basic reading and math skills. Forty-four percent of academy pupils have test scores low enough to require remedial services.

Have the highest suspension rate. Nearly three in every 100 academy pupils were suspended the past two school years, a rate nearly one-third higher than neighborhood schools and more than triple that of magnets.

"I think the original philosophy of an academy was good," said Jean Polino, principal of Triangle Academy in South Buffalo. "But it kind of got lost in the shuffle, and I don't think it was supported financially."

At her school, for example, only pupils getting remedial help are permitted to work on computers. But most of the pupils worked on computers at the early childhood center they previously attended.

"What's offered at the early childhood centers is not followed up at the academies," said Marlies A. Wesolowski, who represents the East District on the School Board. "The academies are glorified neighborhood schools."

Some academies succeed nevertheless. Standardized test scores at Houghton Academy, for example, rival many of the top magnet schools. The curriculum at North Park Academy is regarded as one of the best in the district.

The academic problems at many of the other academies are partly explained by who attends. The pupils are transient: More than one in four changed schools during the last school year. They also tend to be among the poorest in the district: Three-quarters are eligible for the free breakfast program.

The district tries, to some degree, to compensate with additional resources. Academies last year had the smallest class sizes of any group of schools in the district. They also have a higher ratio of teacher's aides than most other schools. And their ratio of library books per pupil also ranked with magnet schools as the best in the district.

But all that hasn't compensated for high-level neglect.

The academy program lost its director and program coordinator soon after the academies were established in 1981.

Mrs. Canedo, appointed director of the academies in 1991, has established a committee of academy educators. The committee has established common goals and priorities for the schools. It now is working to improve curriculum, staff training and the continuity between early childhood centers and academies.

"It's coming along," she said. "I think we can salvage the program."

Mrs. Canedo and her colleagues will have to buck trends to succeed. Standardized test scores dropped last year at nine of the 14 academies.

The shortcomings of the academies are especially troubling, Mrs. Wesolowski said, because the district isn't honoring its pledge to provide pupils a quality education at the end of the bus ride -- a payoff necessary for the continued success of desegregation efforts.

"If there isn't a good program at the end of the bus ride," she asked, "why take the bus ride?"

Struggling in neighborhoods

Running an early childhood center makes some principals want to sing; running a neighborhood school makes others want to scream.

"Coming from an early childhood center to a neighborhood school was like coming from Disneyland to the steel plant," said Evelyn Pizarro, principal of School 77 on the Lower West Side.

Nearly one in three elementary pupils attend a neighborhood school.

Almost seven in 10 are minority; nearly eight in 10 are poor enough to be eligible for the free breakfast program; and one in three change schools during the year. Those are the district's highest rates.

Many pupils struggle in neighborhood schools. Nearly four of 10 require remedial help for basic math or reading skills, and one in 10 speaks limited English.

The district hasn't gone out of its way to help these youngsters or their schools. It has little incentive under the desegregation order, as few of them were targeted for substantial desegregation.

Here's how neighborhood schools have gotten short shrift:

The district never considered how to improve neighborhood elementary schools across the board.

Kindergarten and prekindergarten programs are tough to find. Early childhood centers not only provide full-day kindergarten, but also full-day prekindergarten. Only a handful of neighborhood schools have prekindergarten, and three still don't have full-day kindergarten.

Support staff is limited. Neighborhood elementary schools have fewer teacher's aides. For example, there's one aide per 74 pupils at academies; one per 142 at neighborhood elementaries. Neighborhood schools, along with academies, are less likely to have assistant principals than magnets and early childhood centers.

Neighborhood schools and academies are not allowed to recruit teachers the way magnet schools and early childhood centers do.

"We can't advertise, so we can't get the best that's out there because teachers aren't aware. That's not fair," said Catherine Benjamin, principal at School 57.

The district's policy has resulted in many of the system's best teachers and principals gravitating toward magnets. There is consensus, however, that the teaching staffs in most non-magnet schools are solid.

Morale isn't always the best, however. Many teachers feel their schools have been dealt the bottom of the deck in terms of pupils, program and resources.

Some neighborhood schools are succeeding, nevertheless.

Standardized test scores at School 81 in North Buffalo last year were higher than all but one magnet school. Across town in South Buffalo, Southside Elementary is the only school selected in Western New York for a National Science Foundation grant to restructure its science, math and technology programs.

Other struggling schools are starting to make comebacks. School 77 on the Lower West Side benefits from a state-funded program that has provided extra teacher training and supplies, including a computer in every classroom. School 71 on the East Side has added a program for gifted and talented pupils as well as specialized instruction in art, music and computers.

"In spite of all the problems, the children learn," said School 71 Principal Murray Eisinger. "I think we're doing a pretty good job dealing with all the variables."

Magnets have an attraction

You learn more than reading and writing at Waterfront Elementary, one of the city's 13 magnet schools.

Forty-five pupils, some as young as 4, take Suzuki violin lessons.

All pupils start take swimming lessons beginning in second grade.

And eighth-graders compile their best work in electronic portfolios stored in the school's computers.

Waterfront is a far cry from the typical neighborhood school -- by design.

Magnet schools, along with the early childhood centers and academies, were the foundation of the district's efforts to desegregate schools. The idea was to establish distinctive schools.

Two types of magnet elementary schools were established:

Four citywide magnets, which draw their enrollment entirely from a citywide lottery.

Nine neighborhood magnets, whose enrollments are drawn from youngsters in the neighborhood and pupils selected through a citywide lottery.

All magnets run from kindergarten through eighth grade.

The magnets are popular with parents, but they also are the target of critics who portray them as middle-class bastions hijacking resources from other schools.

The reality defies perception.

Nearly six in 10 pupils attending magnets are minority. More than half are eligible for free breakfasts. More than a quarter require remedial help.

The district appears to distribute its own money evenly between magnet and neighborhood schools.

While magnets get a leg up because the state and federal governments provide special aid, the district's tight finances in recent years prompted school administrators to cut many programs and spend special magnet funds on basic services.

"I think the magnets to some extent are still our strength," said School Board President Donald A. Van Every. "But I can't say I'm enthused much about them anymore because we've done so much to limit them."

The cuts have been felt in all magnet schools, but the effects are most evident at Academic Challenge, established to provide pupils with special programs.

The reading specialists are gone. So are the math specialists. And the full-time psychologist.

"We're trying, but they've taken everything away from us," said Academic Challenge Principal Bernice Richardson. "I'm basically a neighborhood school called a magnet, as quiet as it's kept."

Most magnet schools have fared better than Academic Challenge, however, in part because of the pupils they've attracted. Magnet school pupils tend to be less disadvantaged than youngsters at other elementary schools. Their parents tend to be more involved in their children's schools, and the youngsters transfer from the schools less frequently.

It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that these pupils demonstrate the highest achievement in comparison with their peers at academies and neighborhood elementary schools. Not only are standardized testing scores slightly higher than the national average for magnet school pupils, but also a greater proportion of magnet pupils score exceptionally high.

Najeyah Sultan is sold on the three magnet schools her children have attended, especially Montessori, but not solely because of academics.

"I like the fact my kids go to school with children from all over the city," she said. "I think it's been very good for them."

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