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Total quality management has changed the way many corporations do business.

It's starting to do the same with schools. Witness Red Jacket Academy.

The school is unlike any other in the city. It employs many of the same innovative strategies, such as participatory learning and staff collaboration, used by progressive schools such as Waterfront Elementary and School 90. However, Red Jacket Academy has a twist.

Teachers try to provide what they consider basic needs: fun, freedom, power and a sense of belonging. Meet those needs, teachers say, and you've laid the foundation for academic success.

Quality school proponents question the wisdom of "bossing" students for 13 years if the goal is to prepare them for life as independent adults. Hence, their objective isn't to "make" students behave or do well on tests. Rather, they try to help develop students into self-directed and successful learners.

The school day at Red Jacket, on Abbott Road in South Buffalo, and its nearby companion school, Lorraine Academy, often begins with a circle meeting. Academics, social and problem-solving matters are common topics.

In Room 103, Ginna Westerholt and Marj Jakiel shepherd their fourth-grade class through a social studies exercise in which pupils must choose partners and decide how to act out a scene that, among other things, teaches the difference between meat- and plant-eating animals.

Three pupils then take turns presenting and describing their projects on frontier life. Classmates jump in freely with comments and questions.

At the conclusion of each presentation, one of the teachers asks the pupil: "What do you think you did that was quality? And how?"

After responding, the pupil is asked to rate his or her own work, based on a scale of 1 to 6.

"They are very good at self-evaluating," Ms. Jakiel said.

Finally, the class is given one of four tasks to accomplish individually or in small groups.

"This is the way to teach," said Mrs. Westerholt. "It meets kids' needs better.

"This is not feel-good education. We still do the basics. But if a kid can learn some self-esteem while he's learning the basics, that's wonderful."

Unlike Waterfront and School 90, however, standardized test scores are poor at Red Jacket and have fallen since the school took the new approach three years ago.

Constant disruptions are partly to blame -- the district has twice moved in hundreds of pupils displaced from other schools.

Red Jacket's pupils also have become poorer and more transient, the latter factor making it especially difficult to orient children to a new way of learning.

Joel Weiss, who oversaw the implementation of the quality program as principal until he left for a similar post in Clarence, said he believes learning has improved, even if test scores haven't.

"Standardized tests measure one aspect of learning," Weiss said, "but generally don't measure the kind of skills the kids are learning."

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