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Buffalo's schools provide health insurance to retirees but are talking about eliminating high school sports.

They use teachers to monitor halls and cafeterias but don't have the staff to teach music, art and gym to first, second and third graders.

And many of the schools teach the old way, while overlooking approaches that improve student motivation and behavior.

It's time for change.

Teachers say it.

"We need to stop, think and totally restructure," said Marj Jakiel, a teacher at Red Jacket Academy on Abbott Road.

Parents say it.

"The district needs to have clearly articulated goals and measureable results," said Barbara Rowe, a director of United Parents, the largest citywide parent organization.

Mayor Masiello says it.

"The system needs a total review and revamping," he said.

More than just the education of the city's children is at stake. The very future of Buffalo hangs in the balance.

"Schools are the lifeblood of our community," Masiello said. "Without schools that families have confidence in, we will not have a city of middle class families."

The district does not have to start at ground zero. City schools are safe. The teaching staff is good. Students of all colors get along. And schools offer a rich variety of academic programs.

Buffalo schools are strapped for cash and leadership, however, and are challenged by a growing number of troubled students. The result: Too many students are falling short in the classroom and leaving school ill-prepared for life.

The schools didn't create the problems they are confronted with, but they haven't moved decisively to deal with them. Nor has the community -- the city's political establishment in particular -- prodded the district to make changes or provided it with the needed funds.

The result often has been confrontation between political and educational leaders. What is needed is collaboration, parents, educators and public officials say. Without it, the schools will continue to slide, and the city with them.

While there are a number of ways to rebuild the schools, doing so requires three building blocks:

Strong leadership committed to change, both within the district and in local government.

Within the district, leadership is needed that is committed to changing the dynamics of the classroom, the system's structure and the relationship between schools and outside organizations.

Within local government, leadership is needed to press school officials for change and to work with them to break down institutional barriers that now separate the schools from their communities and organizations that could provide services to students.

A partnership involving the school district, local government, social service providers and community organizations to help deal with troubled youths.

The district has neither the energy nor the money to expand its mission to provide the additional non-educational help many of its students -- and their families -- need. But it can offer health clinics, latch-key programs and other social providers space and cooperation identifying children who need services.

Such a collaborative effort needn't require vast sums of additional money. Just a different use of existing the funds.

More money for educational programs.

A report issued a week ago by the Buffalo Financial Plan Commission pointed out that even if the district enacted all $189 million of economies the commission identified, the system would still face a $51 million deficit over the next five years. Inaction could be disastrous, warns Anthony Palano, principal of the Martin Luther King Multicultural Institute on High Street, one of the city's largest elementary schools.

"I'm not sure, as we're presently going, that our kids are going to be competitive," said Palano, president of the union that represents city principals.

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