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There's nothing fancy about St. Agnes Elementary School.

The building is 80 years old and Spartan by public-school standards.

The curriculum doesn't have a lot of bells and whistles.

And when money needs to be raised or walls need to be painted, parents are counted on to pitch in.

But when it came time to register his son for school, John Woods didn't take any chances. He camped out at 5 a.m. on a cold winter day to be sure he was at the head of the line for the one opening in the kindergarten class.

Woods liked the idea of Jacob attending school with neighborhood kids from the city's Lovejoy area and wasn't keen on him taking a bus to public school.

"Just like the church is a community, so is the school," Woods said.

Woods likes the education his son receives. Test scores indicate he and most other parents of parochial-school pupils have a right to be happy.

A Buffalo News analysis of standardized test scores shows youngsters in the city's 20 parochial elementary schools display a better grasp of basic reading and math skills than public school pupils.

In particular:

The average test score of parochial pupils on national standardized tests is one-third higher than Buffalo public-school elementary pupils, and well above national norms.

More than four in 10 parochial pupils post scores that indicate high-level skills on those tests. More than six in 10 scored above the national average.

Fourteen of the 20 parochial schools exceeded the city average of pupils meeting minimal standards on state reading, writing and math tests.

The performance of parochial pupils on standardized tests is impressive and in keeping with national trends, said Robert Nichols, a University at Buffalo education professor who assisted in the test analysis.

"It looks like the Catholic schools are doing something that's good," he said. "And they're doing it with less money, which is something that really burns public educators, who tend to attribute most of their problems to a lack of money."

"It's amazing what a nun with a whip can do," Nichols quipped.

National studies have concluded that the success of parochial schools can't be attributed solely to the more-favorable socioeconomic profile of their pupils, he said. These studies have cited two factors.

"One reason may be that they get smarter or more motivated kids. They clearly get more motivated parents, simply because they are willing to pay tuition," Nichols said.

"The other reason is the Catholic schools may be doing a better job. They have a more academic environment, more orderly classrooms, and their students do more homework," Nichols said.

One of Nichols' colleagues at UB cautioned that the numbers don't tell the entire story.

Parochial education is "solid within its limits," said Catherine Cornbleth, a professor of education at UB.

"They seem to provide a structure and sense of community that's lacking in too many kids' lives," she said. "But the same structure that provides support can also limit one's exposure to people and ideas."

Give parochial schools their due: Test scores indicate they provide their pupils a good education.

But keep it in perspective: Their ability to pick pupils makes their task easier.

Parochial elementary schools tend to live a more sheltered existence:

Twenty percent of parochial pupils participate in the federally funded free breakfast program, whose eligibility is pegged to income. More than two-thirds of public-school pupils are eligible.

Less than 1 percent of parochial pupils receive special-education services, compared with 13 percent in public elementary and high schools.

Eighty-three percent of parochial pupils are white vs. 36 percent in public schools. Moreover, 12 of 20 parochial schools are at least 95 percent white. Most minorities enrolled in parochial schools attend Catholic Central School, which is 98 percent minority.

Catholic educators say that neither race nor class sets them apart from public schools. Instead, they say, it's the sense of community and discipline they provide.

"It's close-knit -- everyone knows each other," said Sister Ann Helene Koenig, principal of St. Agnes School on Ludington Street. "You're probably going to be in class with your cousin. You're not going to act up in class because your aunts are going to hear about it."

She acknowledges her school doesn't have to deal with many of the problems that nearby School 43 does.

"I can pick and choose who I feel I have a program for," she said. "If a child is a discipline problem, if they have a severe learning problem, I tell the parents, 'Your child will not be able to function here.' "

But Sister Ann Helene doesn't have the resources of a public school principal. The city spends about $7,700 per pupil; St. Agnes does it for about $1,150, which is about $350 lower than the average at other city parochial schools.

Lower salaries are a big reason. The average salary of $14,000 at St. Agnes is one-third of public-school teachers.

Parochial-school facilities tend to be more modest than public schools, and they have fewer big-ticket services such as special education. But parochial schools have taken steps to improve offerings.

"All of our schools still provide a physical-education program and art and music," said Sister Mary Christelle Sawicki, associate superintendent for administrative services. "We also have an extensive athletic program in each of our schools."

Shrinking enrollment is one reason for the improvements. Some 47 parochial schools have closed in the city since the late 1960s, and enrollment has dropped from 25,000 to just under 6,000. Nevertheless, parochial schools educate one in seven Buffalo elementary school children.

While parochial schools generally post good test scores, statistics show that those educating impoverished pupils struggle.

The pupils at Catholic Central School are the most disadvantaged: Three-quarters are on welfare. They also performed most poorly on the state competency tests -- 30 percent fell below minimal state standards. Only one public school in the city had worse numbers.

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