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SCHOOLS STANDING STILL UNTENDED PROBLEMS ERODING DISTRICT'S FOUNDATION

There's not enough money to work with.

Too many troubled kids in the classrooms.

And not enough leadership at the top.

But that hasn't stopped teachers and principals from providing schoolchildren a good education in a fair number of schools across the city.

City schools have their share of troubles -- problems that could swamp the district if not rectified. They are rooted in poor leadership, inadequate resources and, perhaps most importantly, incompetent parents and the explosion of urban ills.

The school district rests on a solid foundation, however. Schools are safe. The teaching staff is good. There is racial harmony among students. And the schools offer a rich variety of academic programs.

"We're a lot better than we're given credit for," said Judith Ricca, principal of the Frederick Law Olmsted Elementary School.

The district is slipping, however.

"When you stand still, you go backwards," said Gregg Hejmanowski, principal of West Hertel Academy. "We're floundering trying to maintain excellence because we don't have the funding and direction."

The Buffalo News spent more than a year examining the state of city schools. The News interviewed more than 280 people, visited all 72 schools, surveyed 154 educators and parent and community leaders, and conducted a computer-assisted analysis that considered test scores, student demographics and the allocation of resources.

One of The News' most important findings challenges the common perception that the district operates a dual system in which magnet schools succeed at the expense of other schools. It is true that most elementary magnet schools are successful, but The News found a number of good non-magnet schools, especially the early childhood centers. It also found some disappointing magnet schools.

While most of the fuss involving magnets has focused on elementary schools, problems are more severe in the high schools. A handful of high schools has skimmed off most of the city's brightest students, leaving most others to struggle because many students lack basic reading, writing and math skills.

The News investigation, which will be the subject of stories the next five days, also found:

Poverty, violence and the breakup of the family structure are raising havoc with a growing number of city youth and placing burdens on the schools that the district is not equipped to handle.

Superintendent Albert Thompson and the Board of Education have done a poor job. Both received negative job ratings from more than three-quarters of those who answered The News survey, althoiugh a majority said the board's performance has improved in the past year.

The city is making a miserly investment in its schoolchildren. Big cities across the nation provide their public schools with an average of 42 percent of their operating revenues; in Buffalo it's only 22 percent.

Schools are safe compared with other big-city districts. Buffalo schools have only one-third as many incidents involving weapons, drugs and alcohol than do big-city districts on average.

Student achievement, as measured by standardized test scores, is typical of big-city school districts. Buffalo has two high achieving students for every three low achievers.

Buffalo schools, in short, have problems, but their condition should not be mistaken for Hollywood's violent portrayals of urban schools or the hopeless conditions described in best-selling books.

Buffalo and its schools are not Detroit. Nor Cleveland. Nor Newark. But to remain attractive to middle-class families -- and avoid the fate of those cities -- the schools need to be revitalized.

"I'm more convinced than ever that our school system is the most important element to our quality of life and the key to ouir renaissance," Mayor Masiello said.

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