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UPGRADED DAVINCI HIGH PASSES THE TEST

It may not be the second coming of City Honors or Hutch-Tech, but a Board of Education vote Wednesday expanded the menu of quality high school programs by establishing Leonardo DaVinci High School as a stand-alone program.

The board also rebuffed a proposal by Superintendent James Harris to re-establish a school for teen-age mothers at Fulton Academy near the Perry housing projects. While there is support for the program, board members objected to the location, which sent Harris and his staff back to the drawing board and possibly delayed the school's opening for a year.

There was unanimous support for the DaVinci proposal, one of the first concrete recommendations the staff has brought to the board in the three years since members passed a resolution calling for an overhaul of the city's high schools.

"I think this will excite the community," said at-large board member Helene Kramer, the leading proponent of high school reorganization. "We need to toot our horn so people know we have this option."

DaVinci has quietly established itself as a solid college-prep program (every one of the school's graduates last year went on to college), but its luster has been dimmed by its affiliation with nearby Grover Cleveland High School. DaVinci students spend half the day in classrooms at D'Youville College and the other half at Grover, which is on the state's list of troubled schools.

The board vote places the entire program at D'Youville, which has agreed to provide expanded facilities to accommodate additional students. The program's current enrollment of 234 will grow to 400 as the school adds freshmen classes of 100 during the next four years. This year 163 prospective freshman have applied. The lease on classroom facilities, and additional staff and materials, will cost the district about $600,000 next year.

DaVinci is a "merit school" of sorts. Applicants must have a strong teacher recommendation attesting to their motivation, cooperation and work habits, and the school likes to see an average of 85 or higher.

The school is looking for accomplished students, not just because of the curriculum, which requires students to take four years of English, math, science and social students, as well as three years of a foreign language. Upperclassmen also have the chance to take college courses at D'Youville. Some recent graduates have earned as much as a semester's worth of college credits while in high school.

The program is "one of a kind" in Western New York, said Benjamin Randle, principal of both DaVinci and Grover.

Associate Superintendent Ronald O'Brien said the revised program "is an absolutely exceptional opportunity for our kids."

A Buffalo News analysis in 1995 showed the school was offering a relatively large number of Regents courses, and that student performance on those exams was comparable to the city's best academic high schools. Performance on local exams trailed only City Honors and Hutchinson-Central Technical High School.

Harris' push for a reopening of a school for pregnant and parenting teen-agers didn't go over well with the board because of his proposed location on Fulton Street in the Old First Ward. The off-the-beaten-track location was considered a drawback until the school was closed in June 1996 in the face of a $36 million budget gap and concerns about the program's cost-effectiveness.

District staff have proposed a different program that would allow teen-age mothers to remain at the school through graduation and provide on-site day care to their children. More than 20 agencies have expressed an interest in providing services to mothers and their children. The idea is to provide students with an education and work opportunities, while giving their children -- future students themselves -- a good start in life.

Board members had no quarrel with the revised program. But, led by Central board member Jan Peters, trustees raised several concerns, including the location.

"I must tell you, I am so disappointed," Ms. Peters told Harris. "I will not support this if Fulton Academic Complex is the location."

Ferry member Florence Johnson said she was "leery about going into the previous location where it was not successful."

Marlies Wesolowski, board president, said she fears placement of the program at Fulton will be "setting it up for failure."

Two other concerns were raised. Using Fulton would force the relocation of two alternative programs that have been uprooted. Then there was the issue of cost: First-year expenses were pegged at $2.7 million, or an estimated $13,000 per student, assuming an enrollment of 200. The district needs an additional $25 million in state and city aid just to maintain its current programs.

Harris said he and his staff "have looked long and hard" for another location, but to no avail. He withdrew his recommendation after it became obvious he didn't have the board's support and said his staff will renew its site search. That search could delay any opening for another year.

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