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The folks who want to reinvent government might want to start with the programs that are supposed to improve the reading and math skills of underachieving students. These students now occupy one of every three desks in Buffalo classrooms.

The first question they might ask is: Why does the district, in the pursuit of one goal, employ two different staffs and techniques?

There are some 17,000 city students whose reading or math skills are lagging, and the state and federal governments provide $34 million for remedial programs to help them.

As things stand, the district's most effective remedial program reaches only half the eligible students. That program, the federally funded Chapter 1 program, has been around for about 25 years.

"We have identified twice as many students as we can provide services to," said Paul Ekes, who supervises the federal math program. "Logic would dictate that we need twice as much money coming in to do the job right."

The federal program has been cited for excellence by U.S. education officials. Officials said test scores of Buffalo pupils enrolled in the program generally show greater improvement than state and national averages. In 1993-94, however, the improvement in test scores in Buffalo lagged behind the state average and most big-city districts in New York.

While the federal program is successful, "there is still room for a lot of improvement," said Linval Foster, who monitors the city's remedial programs for the state Education Department.

Both the state and federal programs are in need of major changes, he said.

"They need more money, but if a better structure was in place, the money they have now would go much further," Foster said. "There are too many turf battles, too many different types of programs."

The lack of federal funds would be less of a problem if the district complemented the program with $14 million in aid it receives from the state. But it doesn't.

Instead, the district uses the state money to set up a separate remedial program. Neither the staff nor the approach is the same.

Unlike the federal program, which uses special staff to instruct pupils, the state program uses classroom teachers. That approach allows the district to use the state funds intended for remedial education to help pay teachers' salaries. Some critics feel the district is using the program as much to underwrite wages as to help the underachieving students.

The state program has two shortfalls:

First, it has virtually no administrative staff. The federal program, responsible for about 12,000 pupils, has nine administrators; the state program, which deals with some 17,000 students, has just one.

Second, district officials don't track how well students are doing in the state program and therefore don't know how effective the program is.

Questions about Buffalo's approach don't end with the differing federal and state programs. When should the district provide intensive help for pupils struggling with reading and math?

A growing number of districts are focusing on pupils in kindergarten, first and second grades. While Buffalo offers services for pupils in those grades, the real push here begins in third grade.

Some districts, including Buffalo, feel it's best to offer pupils a strong developmental program in the classroom. It is felt that many of these youngest pupils -- who develop skills at their own speed -- will catch up on their own. That allows the district to marshal its resources for older students who truly need remedial help.

"With limited resources, it would seem to make more sense to clearly identify the need as soon as possible, but not prematurely," said Ekes, who supervises the federal math program.

But waiting until the third or fourth grade can put youngsters so far behind they never catch up, critics say.

"The sooner you start, the better," said Samuel Banks, director of compensatory education for the Baltimore school district, which shifted its remedial emphasis to kindergarten through third grade in the late 1980s.

"We have schools in oceans of poverty that are doing extremely well," Banks said.

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