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City high schools have traded racial segregation for intellectual segregation.

The result is a handful of high schools that rank among the best in the area and a legion of schools that are struggling in large part because they have been stripped of their most precious assest -- bright students.

City Honors, Hutchinson-Central Technical High School and, to a lesser degree, the Buffalo Academy for the Visual and Performing Arts have developed into the city's elite high schools over the past 15 years.

Honors and Hutch-Tech produce two-thirds of the city students graduating with Regents diplomas and almost three-quarters of those displaying high-level reading and math skills on standardized tests.

Meanwhile, fewer than one in 10 students attending vocational and academic, or neighborhood-based high schools, earn a Regents diploma. And standardized test scores indicate basic reading and math skills in all but a handful of those high schools are well below national norms.

"The magnet system has destroyed the other half of the system," said Larry Veronica, a coach and physical-education teacher at Bennett High School.

A system that allows a handful of schools to select the brightest students is a major reason for the disparity. But not the only one.

Helene H. Kramer, an at-large member of the Board of Education, sees poor leadership as the primary problem. While a lack of resources hasn't helped, she said, the major problem has been the district's indifference toward the high schools and its failure to adopt more interesting and dynamic academic programs.

"Why have the schools been drifting along? A good manager doesn't let schools drift for 17 years," she said.

She described the education provided most high school students as "fair to middling -- at best" and decidedly poorer than what's offered in elementary schools.

"I'm concerned about kids graduating from high schools who aren't being stretched to anywhere near their potential. I think there's a tremendous loss of human potential," she added.

"I'm also concerned by the families who are leaving the city because they don't have any confidence that their kids are receiving a quality education in many of our high schools," said Ms. Kramer, chairwoman of a newly established committee aimed at overhauling the high schools.

The city high schools that are good are very good.

Nine in ten graduates of City Honors earn a Regents diploma, the highest percentage of any school -- public and private -- in Erie County. The percentage of Regents graduates at Hutch-Tech is higher than all but two public high schools in the suburbs.

City high schools also offer some of the most distinctive programs in the area. Honors has the only International Baccalaureate program in Western New York. The engineering
program at Hutch-Tech and arts program at Performing Arts are two of the few in the state.

Much of the excellence is the outgrowth of a decision by the district in the late 1970s to establish three magnet schools, running from fifth to 12th grade, after U.S. District Judge John T. Curtin ordered the desegregation of city schools.

City Honors, then a fledgling independent-studies program for bright students at Bennett High School, took on a life of its own. Two new magnets were established: Traditional High School and Buffalo Academy for the Visual and Performing Arts.

The district in 1987 established two more high schools affiliated with academic high schools: Leonardo Da Vinci High School, whose students spend half the day at Grover Cleveland High School, and the Buffalo Academy of Science and Math, now located at Riverside High School.

With Hutch-Tech, these six schools differ from the city's six neighborhood and four vocational schools in key ways:

Tough entrance standards: All but Traditional, whose enrollment is drawn from a citywide lottery, select their students based on academic performance, either through an entrance exam or elementary-school grades.

Student characteristics: Youngsters attending magnet schools are less likely to be poor. One-third are eligible for the free breakfast program vs. more than half at other high schools. The racial makeup of magnet schools also is different: Half the students are white, as opposed to one-third in the other high schools. They also are better behaved. The suspension rate is 4.5 times higher in academic and vocational high schools. And because students in magnet schools don't have to change schools when they change addresses, their transiency rate is less than half that of vocational schools and one-fifth that of academic schools.

Better facilities: Only Traditional, one of the district's newest schools built in 1962, can be regarded as a top-flight facility. But the buildings for Honors and Performing Arts were renovated when the schools were established, and Hutch-Tech is well stocked with computers. Magnet schools also tend to have better libraries.

More challenging academics: Magnet schools offer many more Regents courses. Regents exams amount to 40 percent of final exams taken in magnet schools and only 13 percent in academic and vocational schools. In addition, magnet school students accounted for 90 percent of those taking college-level courses last year.

Stronger academic achievement: Almost one in two magnet students earns a Regents diploma, vs. one in 14 students graduating from an academic or vocational school. Magnet school students do much better on final exams: almost 90 percent pass local exams vs. about 70 percent in the academic and vocational schools. And standardized tests show that the average reading and math skills of magnet school students rank in the top third of the nation, while those of academic and vocational students rank in the bottom third.

Stephen Halpern said the education his two sons have received at City Honors extends beyond what's taught in class.

"The diversity at the school has had a profoundly important and positive influence that will stay with them the rest of their lives. They are better people for it," he said.

Halpern, whose two sons previously had attended Elmwood Franklin School and Park School, both private schools, feels his sons received a better education at Honors.

"It is public education at its best," he said.

One of his sons attends Yale University, the other has been accepted to the Ivy League school for next year.

Tasha Pratcher, a senior at Hutch-Tech, said she appreciates her school because it provides both a friendly and challenging environment. She said she also appreciates that she is taking more difficult courses than her friends who attend other city high schools.

"My friends take intermediate classes, but at Hutch the classes are Regents," she said. "I had to work real hard to get on the honor roll."

Larry Browing, a senior at Honors, said he likes the school because "everyone is into learning. If you want to excel, they offer you all the academic courses you want."

Academic high schools struggle

The academic high schools pay for the excellence of the city's magnet schools.

The academic high schools face three major problems, according to Robert Barton, principal at Kensington High School: high transiency, low attendance and poorly prepared students.

Academic high schools have the highest transiency rate in the district: 55 percent of students changed schools last year. They also had the lowest attendance rate: 84 percent.

Along with the vocational schools, the academic high schools are faced with the task of teaching students with the poorest academic skills.

Barton estimated that 40 percent of his freshmen enter high school capable of handling the work. The other 60 percent either lack the skills or motivation to succeed, he said.

Reading and writing skills are a particular problem, he said. The average ninth-grader who graduated from city elementary schools has the reading skills of a sixth- or seventh-grader, he said. Those who are promoted to high school because they have turned 16 or can't be flunked again -- and they account for a quarter to a third of freshmen -- typically have the reading skills of a fourth- or fifth-grader, Barton said.

The lack of skills translates into other problems.

"Students get frustrated because they can't do the work and they become behavior and attendance problems," Barton said.

Principals and teachers in most high schools commonly complain that too many of their students are leaving elementary schools not academically prepared.

"I see the ninth-graders come in and they're so ill-prepared it's not funny," said John Vella, principal of Riverside High School.

Achievement in academic high schools lags as a result:

Few students take Regents courses, and almost 40 percent who do flunk the final exam.

Students flunk one-third of the less-challenging local exams.

Standardized tests indicate that only 3 percent of students have high-level reading and math skills. Moreover, average scores not only are in the bottom third of the nation, but also are falling at four of the six schools.

One in three students requires remedial services; one in five, special-education services.

Just as with magnet schools, not all academic high schools are the same.

Lafayette and Bennett high schools are faring better than the others. Their students tend to be less impoverished.

The district also has put more resources into the schools. Both have "mini-magnet" programs: Lafayette's focuses on finance, while Bennett has offerings on law, computers and international studies.

Both schools also benefit from no-nonsense principals who have established order in their buildings and good working relationships with City Hall administrators.

"As I see it, we do a good job on discipline and creating an educational atmosphere," said Bennett Principal Marilyn Wittman. "What we want to do now is increase student motivation."

Other schools have a tougher go. They all share a lack of resources and a loss of many of the brightest students from their neighborhoods.

"We have a significant number of good students, but the students who don't qualify for magnet or vocational schools are assigned to their district high school, and those students often have a history or academic or attendance problems," said Paul Lafornara, principal of South Park High School.

Principals said they need more materials and staff. The loss of full-time staff members who deal with truants has especially hurt.

"I can't teach kids who aren't here," said Lafayette Principal Frederick Ganter.

Money for books is tight, too. The main textbook in Grover Cleveland High School's business computer lab, for example, is chained to desks. Transiency is so high and the book so expensive that teachers feel they have no choice.

"With our budget, I can buy less than one new textbook per kid per year," said Grover Principal Benjamin Randle.

Vocational demands changing

Vocational high schools share many of the same problems of the academic high schools: high rates of poverty among students, incoming freshmen lacking basic skills, limited course offerings and mediocre performance on exams. But some feel the results are better.

"Two-thirds of the students who graduate from 'occupational schools' find jobs in a related field or go on to college. I think that's impressive when you consider the pool of students the schools are drawing from," said Robert Mates, a professor of engineering at the University at Buffalo and chairman of the district's long-range planning committee on occupational education.

The fact that so many students attending vocational schools go on to college points out a fundamental problem, said Carol Streiff, a knowledgeable observer of the district who has monitored its compliance with the federal desegregation order for the plaintiffs.

"The organization of the high schools is upside down," she said. "The kids who require vocational training are not getting it because they're in the academic high schools, and the kids who don't need it because they're going on to college are getting it."

Indeed, today's vocational students do not fit the stereotype.

First, they are more likely to attend college after high school than they are to get a job in their trade. Forty percent of vocational school graduates attend college, often junior colleges, compared with 25 percent who take a job in a field related to their vocational training.

Second, the trades that students take are more likely to be white-collar than blue-collar. From 1986 through 1993, some 6,500 students enrolled in business and marketing programs, while 4,400 were in the traditional trades.

Also surprising is the distribution of vocational students. Only 25 percent of students taking vocational courses attend McKinley, Seneca, Burgard and Emerson.

Most of the rest attend Hutch-Tech or the Buffalo Vocational and Technical Center, where some academic high school students spend half their day.

The quality of vocational programs varies, said Mates, but generally is good.

"A lot depends on how interested and knowledgeable the teachers are about the occupation," he said.

What makes for a good vocational program?

First, there are jobs for graduates. The white-collar occupational programs are faring better, Mates said.

Second, the school has contacts with local businesses and strives to place students in jobs and internships. Both white- and blue-collar programs have varying success in this regard, Mates said, citing the culinary-arts program at Emerson and the plumbing program at McKinley as particular successes.

Vocational schools face several problems, however, beginning with the quality of students they attract.

"The biggest problem I see is the pool of students who have serious educational deficiencies," he said. "They are poorly prepared in basic skills such as reading, writing and math."

The typical students at Seneca, Burgard and Emerson have modest academic skills. They fail one-third of their final exams, and their scores on standardized tests rank in the lower third nationally.

And those scores are falling.

Limited academic offerings are a second problem. Only McKinley offers a range of Regents courses comparable to the better academic high schools. Emerson didn't offer a single Regents-level course last year; Burgard offered only one.

Emerson Principal Salvatore Sedita regrets that his school's academic offerings are limited to core subjects.

"I don't have the staff to provide the elective courses," he said. "Students aren't getting enough of the extras."

His students agree.

"This year, I have two study halls that I do nothing with," said Jill Handley, a senior at Emerson. "I wanted to take more math, but I finished my math credits my sophomore year, and there's nothing else to take.

"Some of the students at my school are (just) trying to get by, but a lot of my friends want to do more things with their time than just sit in study hall."

Vocational schools are caught in a "Catch 22" situation, Mates said.

They need to improve their academic fare because so many graduates go to college. But the vocational schools also need to attract students more capable of handling more challenging courses, he said.

"Academically, the offerings are meager, but that may well be because the students aren't interested in or capable of taking the course," Mates said. "We have to work on that, though."

A lack of resources to update programs also is a problem, he said. High-tech skills are in growing demand, and some schools, Seneca in particular, are trying to adapt. But high-tech offerings require expensive equipment, and the district is hard pressed to find the money.

"Everything is becoming more and more technical, and we are quickly turning toward greater and higher technology that is constantly changing. As a result, the needs are never ending," said Seneca High School Principal Mark Balen.

"We've probably received more equipment than all the other high schools in Buffalo combined, and we still feel the need for more and more," Balen said.

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