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FIRST-CLASS TEACHERS PROVIDE STRENGTH QUALITY AND DEDICATION OF STAFF GIVEN HIGH ACCOLADES

The blitz can come at any time in Room 208.

"Are you ready to rock?" bellows junior high English teacher Frank Cecala.

"Yes!" his pupils shout in unison.

"Are you ready to roll?"

"Yes!"

"Are you ready for some blitzing?"

"No!" the pupils groan in mock anguish.

Cecala (pronounced chuck-a-la) stands at the front of his junior high classroom at Campus North in University Heights and holds up his handmade flash cards. He calls on pupils one at a time. They've got three seconds to define the word. To keep them on their toes, Cecala often asks them to name the root or a derivative, or maybe a synonym or antonym.

Get it right, and, well, you're expected to. Mr. C doesn't tolerate slackers. Get it wrong, and you've got extra homework that will teach you the meaning.

Malevolent: spiteful, malicious, wishing harm to others.

Itinerant: wandering, traveling.

Ravenous: extremely hungry, very greedy. Voracious is a synonym.

Cecala's classroom is nothing to look at. The walls need painting, especially in the corner where the wall has been plastered five times to repair water damage. The hardwood floors are badly worn. The desks look like they're older than the kids sitting in them.

But because of Cecala, the conditions hardly matter. He's making a difference -- just like several thousand of his fellow teachers in classrooms throughout the city.

Teachers, in fact, may be the best thing city schools have going for them.

The quality and dedication of the teaching staff were ranked as the major strengths of the school district in a survey The Buffalo News conducted of educators and parent and community leaders. It wasn't just educators in the system who felt that way. Everyone from parents to politicians ranked teachers as the No. 1 strength.

A tour of the schools -- and interviews with 175 principals, teachers and students -- confirms the praise.

Yes, many of the facilities were second rate. But most of the people working in them were anything but. They seem to know their business. Moreover, it is obvious they care about their students. Really care.

The schools are filled with teachers like Mildred Hess, a special-education teacher at Hamlin Park School 74. It's a tough school in a tough neighborhood, but the staff has little turnover.

"We're here because we want to be," she said. "We genuinely care about these kids."

Mr. C loves the theater. He takes pupils to see professionally staged plays -- the next road trip is to see "Showboat" in Toronto -- and he directs three productions a year at Campus North.

He remembers years ago when an eighth-grader named Lenny auditioned for the part of Puck, the impish spirit in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." The kid was perfect, except for one thing: he had the language skills of a fourth-grader and couldn't read the script.

Mr. C worked him hard between the November audition and the March production. Lenny got the part and was reading at a seventh-grade level by the end of the school year.

He went on to graduate from McKinley High School and live the typical American dream: the wife, the kids, the mortgage.

Expedite: to speed up, make easier. A derivative of expeditious.

Stealthy: secretive, underhanded.

Refute: to disprove, prove wrong. The noun version is refutation.

For a lot of city teachers, academics are only part of the job.

"Quite often we're their family. They call you dad or uncle," said Jeff Wright, who teachers advertising art at McKinley High School.

For some of Wright's students, he's as close to being a father as they're going to get.

Many teachers like Wright open their hearts. Almost all open their wallets.

"All teachers in the city buy supplies out of their own pockets. All teachers," said Susan Kelsey, a special-education teacher at School 19, the Native American Magnet.

Indeed, of the more than 70 teachers interviewed, only one said he didn't spend his own money to buy supplies. Most said they were spending hundreds of dollars a year. One spent $2,000. And that was when teachers were still working without a contract.

The best endorsements teachers received weren't the laudatory comments from principals, although there were plenty. Rather, it was what principals said when asked, off the record, how many of their staff they would get rid of if they could. A vast majority of principals said only a handful.

How many bosses can say that?

City teachers have some other things going for them as well. For one, they are better educated than most of their suburban counterparts. A quarter of city teachers have completed at least half the course work needed for their doctorates. That average ranks sixth out of 28 districts in Erie County.

Many teachers also have a good command of innovative teaching methods. Science teachers in the elementary schools are all going through a complete retraining so they can stress hands-on science in the classroom. There are a lot of other specialized programs -- some in magnets schools, some not -- that require teachers to keep on their toes.

In short, a lot of bright, committed people work in classrooms throughout the city.

There are no couch potatoes in Mr. C's class. The pupils recently completed reading "So Much Unfairness of Things," a short story about a student who cheats on an exam in an effort to please his father. Mr. C leads his pupils through an animated discussion, touching on themes ranging from honestly to love.

He then calls on Kahlil and Marvin to act out a key passage in which the father confronts his son about cheating. Their classmates help with sound effects and give them a hearty round of applause at the end. Kahlil and Marvin bow.

Spatial: related to space.

Solicitous: concerned, anxious, attentive. A derivative of solicit.

Expedite: to speed up, make easier.

Not all is well in the classroom, however.

For starters, the stagnation at the top has an impact on the bottom. One elementary teacher who used to work in a well-regarded private school said too many of his new colleagues rely too much on perspiration rather than inspiration and are in need of professional renewal. Call it the blue-collar syndrome.

Some of that is rooted in the growing frustration with the job. The worst of the morale problem ended with the settlement of the teachers contract last fall. But teachers are left to deal with the challenge of managing what are increasingly more difficult classrooms.

"It's not what I signed up for," said Susan Mango, a fourth-grade teacher at Campus East. "We have children with parents who don't consider education to be a priority. Unfortunately, it seems like most days we are doing all the work and no one else is."

They do what they can to handle the growing number of kids who either fail to catch on or act out. But they acknowledge that often it is not enough, and the district doesn't provide their schools the resources needed to reach those kids. Some wonder if a cultural gulf is growing between teachers -- 80 percent of whom are white, many of whom live outside the city -- and a student body that is more than 60 percent minority.

"It's a different world between the inner-city and suburbia," said Janet Barnes, a coordinator with Alternative High School. "Many teachers come from a comfortable lifestyle and some don't understand the disadvantaged situations some of the students live in."

Teachers and principals are frustrated by a lack of resources. Buying out of pocket goes only so far. They can't hire a social worker for the school or keep the building open after hours to give youngsters an alternative to the streets.

Denise Segars-McPhatter, a teacher for 13 years and now principal at School 31 on Stanton Street, conveyed the collective rage of many of her colleagues.

"They take away some of your books. They take away some of your computers. They take away some of the special areas such as art and music. Then, as the crowning touch, they say you're not going to get a pay raise for four years. How is that supposed to make you feel as a professional?"

Mr. C is 6 feet, 3 inches tall. His voice booms. He calls on every pupil during blitzes. He can be intimidating -- but the kids appreciate him.

Former pupils come back to see him. They call him when they get a job or a part in a play. They send him Christmas and birthday cards.

One of them is going to be appointed a deacon in the Catholic Church next month. Influential people usually present the deacon his vestments. The deacon's parents will present him -- along with Mr. C.

Appraise: to estimate the value of. Assess is a synonym.

Acquiesce: to accept, agree, give consent.

Distend: to expand, swell out, stretch. Distention is the noun version.

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