The kids start lining up outside School 57 near the Broadway Market about a half hour before the school cafeteria starts serving breakfast. Even on cold, snowy mornings, they show up early, shivering in line. They have no better place to be.
Melissa, a second-grader, lives with one of her father's former girlfriends. Her poppa is a rolling stone. Her teacher says Melissa is insecure.
Rashad, in an unzipped jacket and no gloves, accompanies two of his younger sisters. At age 9, he's their father figure, making sure they get to and from school.
Latoya is repeating third grade. Her parents last year ignored phone calls and letters from the teacher until the end of the school year. Latoya is struggling again this year, but her parents didn't show up for the parent-teacher conference.
Many of the youngsters who line up outside her door are adrift, said Retta Maclin, assistant principal at School 57.
"They're basically raising themselves," she said. "They get up on their own, don't know what time it is and come."
Rashad, Melissa and Latoya are the faces of the Buffalo public schools. And their future. And their challenge.
"I liken this experience to M*A*S*H*," said Robert Moore, an English teacher at Hillery Park Academy in South Buffalo. "The buses roll in, and it's incoming wounded."
The majority of Buffalo students are well-adjusted, and their parents take an active interest in their education.
The number of troubled schoolchildren is growing, however. "Most of the kids we deal with on a daily basis come to school with the purpose of learning. But those students who do come in with problems come in with significant problems that demand a tremendous amount of teacher time," said Ronald Romanowicz, principal of Campus North in University Heights.
Schools once were simply a place of learning; now they serve the only hot meals some kids eat most days. Teachers once were simply educators; now some function as substitute parents.
One teacher recalled how a student thanked him after a chewing out. At least you care about me, the student told him.
Parents, in fact, are the major reason for the troubled plight of many Buffalo schoolchildren. Poverty and the media also are cited by educators.
The effects are tragic.
Too many kids come to school intellectually stunted or emotionally traumatized, unable or unwilling to learn.
"They come from homes where their parents are drug addicts and prostitutes and alcoholics. They are not bad kids, but they are kids with a lot of bad baggage," said Bernice Richardson, principal of School 6, the Academic Challenge Center, located in one of the city's toughest neighborhoods on the East Side.
Many Buffalo schoolchildren are growing up differently than kids a generation ago.
For starters, more kids are growing up poorer. The percentage of Buffalo families living below the poverty line doubled from 11 to 22 between 1970 and 1990. One-third of all black families and half of Hispanic households are in poverty.
Fewer children have a father around. The number of single-parent families headed by a woman in the city has more than doubled, from 19 percent of households in 1970 to 45 percent in 1990. Two-thirds of black families are now single-parent households headed by a woman.
"I could probably count on one hand the number of kids who live with their mother and father. We've got families where every kid has a different last name," said Jean Polino, principal of School 28, Triangle Academy.
"The family structure has disintegrated, and parents are so involved with trying to just provide a roof over their heads and food on the table that they don't have control over their kids," she said.
Teachers and principals regard many parents as selfish or incompetent.
"Poverty hasn't changed. The support from the family has changed," said Phyllis Robinson, principal of School 40 on Clare Street. "I've worked in very poor schools, and the parents were there. Now the parents aren't around."
Ninety-one percent of teachers and principals responding to a Buffalo News survey about the Buffalo public schools gave parents a negative rating. Parents are doing a poor or only fair job of preparing and supporting their children in school, the educators say. And 69 percent said parents are doing a worse job in this regard than a decade ago.
The knock against parents?
The worst of them are reckless, educators say. They do drugs, drink to excess or abuse or neglect their children.
"We have to deal with kids who have pretty horrible lives," said Robert Beck, an English teacher at Lafayette High school. "It's tough to teach a kid who is getting neglected at home."
A more common complaint: Too many parents are ill-equipped, especially the growing number of teen-age girls who become single mothers. Educators complain too many parents don't have control over their children, haven't instilled the proper attitudes toward education or provided them with such basic experiences as going downtown or to a museum. Some parents don't even read to their children.
"They just don't know what it is they should be doing," said Denise Segars-McPhatter, principal at School 31, an early childhood center. "There's a license for everything but to be a parent."
Other educators complain of parent apathy -- and the guilty include many middle-class parents.
"I think it's a lack of parental concern," said Jim Possinger, a math teacher at West Hertel Academy. "They express concern, but they don't follow up."
The media and popular culture also are criticized.
"Sex, violence, foul language. Television has everything, and children at all ages see things that they're not prepared to see and hear," said Carolyn Allen, principal at School 65, Roosevelt Academy, in Black Rock. "I think the media have been the greatest influence on our children, more so than peer pressure."
Television, movies and rap music work at cross-purposes with the schools.
Schools teach kids to resolve conflicts peacefully; the Terminator kills with impunity. Schools teach mutual respect; Snoop Doggy Dogg denigrates women as whores.
Poverty, neglectful parents and media influences have made for a lethal mix.
"The children we're seeing today are coming in less prepared for school," said Edith James, with 23-years as a teacher and administrator.
"They're not as verbal, they're not as astute. They're sleepy, they've been exposed to negative things. You get the feeling they're growing up but they're not attended to."
Principals say 10 to 40 percent of children entering school are developmentally behind. These children's language skills are poor. They have short attention spans and clumsy gross motor skills. They don't recognize colors, letters and numbers.
"A lot of kids are coming from homes where there are no books, magazines or papers. Their first exposure to the printed word is in school," said Karen Nizialek, a first-grade teacher at School 17 on West Delavan Avenue near Main Street.
Teachers try to help their pupils catch up. But that's difficult when the youngsters shuffle among schools. Almost one-third of Buffalo city pupils changed schools last year. In seven schools, the turnover topped 50 percent.
"The first of the month around here is like a revolving door," said Mrs. Polino, the Triangle Academy principal.
Educators say a growing number of students, regardless of their personal circumstances, lack either the desire or ability to work at their education.
"The kids are very difficult to motivate. School is probably one of their last priorities," said Jim Kapsiak, a teacher at Emerson High School.
Many educators see hopelessness behind the apathy and belligerence.
"We have so many kids who are so confused -- kids who don't have any goals," said Arlene Shappee, principal at Riverside Academy.
"I had a girl in here, an eighth-grader, who had been out in the streets, a tough gal who has since been formally suspended, and I said to her 'Where will you be in 20 years?' She said, 'I don't know, I might be dead.' "
The challenge confronting Buffalo schools is to help reach those kind of kids -- kids like 15-year-old Ezell Ezzell, who a year and a half ago wrote the following essay titled, "Ten Years From Now."
"I don't know what I will be doing. I will do the same thing I'm doing now in 10 years. Have some kids, get an apartment, and live by myself. Maybe have a car and a job that pays the rent. Maybe start my own bussiness and be my own boss or have a partnership with someone. It's hard to say what I would be doing in 10 years from now because I may not be living so I think this essay was not a good one."
Ezell's essay was prophetic. He was gunned down the day after writing it.
THURSDAY: Schools that succeed and a blueprint for reform.