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REAL-LIFE LESSONS <br> SUBURBAN STUDENT TEACHERS DISCOVER THE UNEXPECTED

They were asked what they expected, and this is what some of them said:

Bars on the windows.

Security guards patrolling the halls.

Drugs and knives.

Fights in the halls.

Then they went out and saw for themselves. And found out the difference between perception and reality.

Every year, the University at Buffalo sends about 100 future student teachers into city neighborhoods and schools.

They spend a day on the streets where their students live -- eating in restaurants, riding the bus, talking to people.

And they spend a day a week in the school where they'll teach the next semester.

Most of them, said program director Catherine Emihovich, are suburban kids who've spent little time in the city.

Many of them -- as evidenced by the comments above -- expect the worst.

"They're concerned about controlling student behavior. They think they'll be extremely disruptive," said Dr. Emihovich. "They've heard stories of physical violence. They ask questions like, 'Can I walk (safely) from my car to the school?' "

"Only the ones who grew up in the city have feelings other than negative," said Kim Truesdell, the program's associate director. "Every year we get calls from their parents: 'Don't make them do this, they're going to be beat up, robbed.' "

What they find out is that things aren't nearly as bad as they thought.

The lesson goes beyond the schoolroom. More than two-thirds of the county's population lives outside of the city -- the reverse of 40 years ago. The only time many suburbanites come into the city is for sports and cultural events. They get their impressions of city schools and neighborhoods from the media and word of mouth.

"The media focuses on the dire aspects of the inner city -- fires, drug busts, shootings," said Dr. Emihovich. "If you don't have a lot of day-to-day contact with those neighborhoods or the people there, who don't necessarily look like you, it's hard to get past what the media tells you."

In a sense, the future student teachers are guinea pigs in a social experiment. They are the eyes and ears of those who seldom tread downtown, much less beyond.

The schools they've spent time at the past six weeks ranged from Hutchinson-Central Technical High School, second in the county in graduates with Regents diplomas, to School 18, where nine of every 10 students is on public assistance.

"I expected some hostility," said Chris Feenan, who's teaching at School 18. "I tried to prepare myself for being just about the only white guy in school.

"That movie 'Dangerous Minds,' with Michelle Pfeiffer. That's what I thought it was going to be like."

Feenan is 41, a contractor from Lockport with arms like 2-by-4s. He went back to school for a teaching degree. The kids he has met at School 18 are more polite than the suburban kids he has lived among the past decade.

"It's always 'Mr. Feenan,' " he said. "They'll come up and start a conversation, which I didn't expect. They ask me why I'm here, what it's like in college."

Chris Pucella came to UB from Brooklyn. He's at South Park High School. The school made the news five years ago when a security guard was shot in the leg.

But mayhem is not what Pucella has seen.

"The football team nearly won the city championship, and they don't even have a football field," said Pucella. "They take a bus to practice, or they work out on this piece of land across from the school.

"What they accomplish is pretty amazing, with the lack of resources."

What the handful of student teachers interviewed saw in the schools was law, not disorder.

"The class changes are real orderly," said Feenan, at School 18. "The hallways are quiet."

Lisa Williams sits in on a seventh-grade class at School 38, on the West Side. It's two-thirds minority, 80 percent welfare families.

"They're not allowed to talk in the halls," said Ms. Williams, 24. "The kids come into class and sit at their desks. When they want to talk, their hands go up. There's no shouting across the room."

At School 38, nearly half the kids dress in black and white, the school colors. At South Park, homerooms staged a door decorating contest before the Harvard Cup, the city championship game. Two weeks ago, a South Park economics class placed in the Top 10 in a national investment contest involving more than 2,000 schools.

Those aren't the images many people connect with city schools.

"I thought I'd have to work hard to get them interested in science," said Feenan at School 18. "It's just the opposite. They're on the edge of their seats. You have to hold back, make them figure it out for themselves."

Allyson Siegel is a 32-year-old mother who's student teaching at the Makowski School, an early childhood center on the East Side. She remembers a group discussion before the student teachers went into the neighborhood.

"One guy said, 'Oh, you better bring your gun.' And then this really quiet girl said, 'I'm bringing mine.' It just shocked me."

Granted, the crime rate is high in parts of Buffalo. But there's a difference between reasonable caution in a bad neighborhood and paranoia.

Robert Coles, who runs Robcol's real estate agency on East Delavan, is one of the neighborhood people the student teacher group spoke with.

"It's like I told them: 'When there's dog droppings on the sidewalk, you avoid it. But that doesn't mean you condemn the whole neighborhood.' "

Jeff Hewett remembers some female student teachers clutching their purses as they walked through the neighborhood.

What they found, on closer look, is the humanity that inhabits all neighborhoods. They went into a senior center, the Chat and Chew restaurant and Coles' real estate office.

"Talking to people helps you learn that there are real people living in those areas," said Hewett, who's student teaching at Hutch Tech. "Not everyone is out to get you."

That's what they realize now.

Many of them expected far worse. And those misperceptions -- shared by a legion of people -- come partly from the way the cities are portrayed in the news and entertainment media.

A recent national study at the University of Miami found that local TV news spent twice as much time on crime as on any other topic. A similar study by Rocky Mountain Media Watch said nearly half of local TV news time was devoted to crime or disasters.

"You get this body bag journalism," Joseph Angotti, head of the Miami study, told the Associated Press. "It has a numbing effect. People withdraw from activities because of fear."

Tony Conrad is a media studies professor at UB.

"Aside from the TV news and newspaper, we hardly have a way to get an image (of the inner city)," said Conrad. "Again and again, you get this theme: 'I went downtown and survived.' So much of it is highly fictionalized."

Conrad has a cable TV show on the public access channel called School News. It highlights students' achievements.

"Usually if you're on TV," said Conrad, "it's because you shot somebody. These other kids deserve to be heard from more often."

Ms. Williams, who's at School 38, said her impressions were formed not by the news media, but through films.

" 'Lean on Me' and 'Dangerous Minds' were good movies, but they showed city schools as dangerous places," she said. "Good things may happen there, but what you're starting out with is the bad impression."

If there was a stereotype confirmed by the student teachers, it was the lack of resources. They told of scarce crayons for preschoolers; of high schoolers who couldn't take textbooks home because they were shared with students in other classes.

Other than that, they got an education.

"What I've found are good kids, bright, honest, respectful," said Ms. Williams, at School 38. "I always kind of thought that, but I'd never been exposed to it. Now that I'm there, it's just great to see."

Too bad more people can't share the view.