Bad grades don't go over well in Amherst.
That became clear when only 80 percent of the third-graders at Windermere Boulevard School passed a test measuring minimal reading skills in May 1996.
State officials say all schools should have a figure of at least 90 percent. And they got no argument from Amherst Central School District officials, who feel the 80 percent grade marred an otherwise good performance on the state's first report card early this year.
"This is not acceptable," is how Superintendent Dennis D. Ford summarized the community reaction. "We're better than that."
Then they proved it. In the process, state officials said, Windermere helped set an example in self-evaluation and improvement.
Parents, senior citizens and retired principals and teachers were recruited as classroom volunteers, along with college, high school and middle school students.
A teacher and an aide were added to the third-grade staff at the Eggertsville school, and a half-time reading teacher became full-time.
Teaching methods and staff development were refined, pupils got more individual and small-group attention, and remedial instruction was broadened. On the first day of class in September 1996 -- and every day after that -- the importance of reading was stressed.
"I looked at it like advertising," said Karen S. Karmazin, who became principal the year after the 80 percent figure was recorded. "You can't just say it once. It has to be repetitive messages."
"We have a vibrant, bright, talented staff here," she said. "They needed to be empowered to make changes."
And when the state's second report card comes out early next year, it will show that Windermere's passing rate in third-grade reading jumped to 94 percent in May, a remarkable one-year increase.
"I anticipated improvement," Ford said. "But I did not in any stretch of the imagination expect to cross the 90 percent barrier in one year."
State Education Commissioner Richard P. Mills said Windermere was one of many schools across the state successful in raising unsatisfactory test scores.
"Districts are showing from school to school that they do know how to get results," Mills said.
In the most dramatic local example, Buffalo's School 57 improved the passing rate for third-grade reading from 33 percent to 88 percent in two years and last week was removed from the list of schools under state review.
More typically, Mills said, districts like Amherst Central molded reform plans without direct pressure from the state.
At Windermere, that effort revolved around Ms. Karmazin, a former Clarence teacher who was hired with the specific task of boosting reading levels.
"I was looking for someone who had a good, strong teaching background and someone who would have the courage to take the bull by the horns," said Ford, who was also new to the district.
Julianne Drake, a reading teacher, said Ms. Karmazin galvanized a schoolwide desire to do better.
"She's very honest and open, and she involved the entire school," Ms. Drake said. "As an administrator, Karen took charge."
And 727 pupils in kindergarten through fifth grade got down to business.
"You start out by telling the student this is very important," said Ms. Drake. "This is something you need to learn. This is something you need to remember."
Last week, pupils used yellow markers to highlight words or passages they didn't comprehend and later asked Christine Gaume, a reading teacher, for explanations.
"Children understand 'I don't know this, but I can find out what it's all about,' " Ms. Gaume said.
In the cafeteria last week, Parent-Teacher Association volunteers ran a "Devour a Book" program, in which pupils chose books and magazines to read while eating lunch.
Ruth Reilly, PTA president, said district administrators were upfront about Windermere's reading problems and did not try to hide behind a "party line" or the district's overall strong showing in several academic and media rankings.
"It's very easy to feel complacent when you're feeling that you're Number One," she said.
In addition, Windermere cites its diverse pupil population as an asset, not an excuse. While the school includes the LeBrun Road area and other upscale neighborhoods, it also includes subsidized housing units.
Thirty percent of its pupils are eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches, 24 percent are minorities, and 11 percent are in special education.
"One of the reasons people want to send their children here is that they want them to come in contact with all kinds of children," Ms. Karmazin said. "It's a microcosm of the global world."
Windermere's goal is to at least maintain the 94 percent figure and to increase the number of pupils -- now at 43 percent -- who read above grade level, Ms. Karmazin said.
Paul V. Batt Jr., president of the Amherst School Board, said the school is well-positioned to do that because of the decision to meet the problem head-on.
"Everyone agreed we wanted to jump on it quickly and not let it linger or get worse," he said. "Instead of just talking about it, they developed an action plan and did something about it."