Science teacher Thomas J. Geelan showed his class at City Honors skull replicas of a gorilla, a chimpanzee and a Neanderthal man.< Evolution and biology can't be separated, he told the students.
"Everything in biology is evolution," Geelan said. "It's the central organizing theme of all biology. It's never out of the curriculum."
The other side of the national debate about how schools should present the origins of man was played out at Charles Grandison Finney High School, an independent Christian School in downtown Buffalo.
On the second day of class, biology teacher Andrea Slish established the "biblical basis for science" by discussing 11 bible passages.
"In six days, God created the heavens and earth," she said. "If we believe the Bible, creationism is what we believe."
The evolution-creationism debate, a recurring theme in U.S. public education, was rekindled last month when the Kansas Board of Education adopted new standards that eliminate evolution as an underlying principle of biology and other sciences.
Following that move, which was sparked by religious conservatives, an Indiana state legislator said he will introduce a bill there to end the teaching of evolution.
Opponents of the evolutionary theory, which maintains that all life evolved from common ancestors, say it contradicts the biblical account of the creation of life by God and object to the notion that human life evolved from a lower life form.
Several states, including Mississippi and Tennessee, "ignore evolution completely," while others, such as Florida and South Carolina, "treat the subject lightly," according to a 1998 report by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.
And some fundamentalist students have found their own way to confront the issue. In a biology class at South Glens Falls High School, some students every year refuse to answer questions about evolution on the state Regents test since the scientific theory violates the tenets of their faith.
The Rev. Brad Collins, pastor of the Lighthouse Bible Church in Saratoga Springs, said he's realistic when young people ask his advice.
"I tell them, take your test, but talk to your teacher ahead of time and tell your teacher, 'This is what I believe, I do not believe in evolutionary theory. I'm writing (the answers) because that's what's in the textbook,' " Mr. Collins said.
But in public schools across Western New York, the theory of evolution has long been given a strong emphasis and has resulted in little serious controversy.
Orchard Park Superintendent Charles L. Stoddart doesn't remember any stir over evolution during 36 years as a district teacher and administrator.
"I think there has been an effort in Western New York to expose kids to different views so they can examine both sides of an issue and make up their own minds, whether it be pro-life or pro-choice, Republican or Democrat, or evolution or creationism," Stoddart said.
Donald Deavers, who has taught biology at Williamsville South High School for 30 years, said he has received just one student objection to evolution instruction. Concerns about animal dissection are more frequent, he said.
"I always teach evolution from the scientific aspect, and I tell the students I'm not trying to instill any beliefs in them," Deavers said.
Nor is there any serious dispute among public school educators that evolution is a crucial element in biology instruction.
"It overrides so many other parts of biology that I couldn't imagine teaching biology without it," said Stanley J. Wegrzynowski, science director for the Buffalo Public Schools.
Local public school teachers often discuss creationism as an alternative theory, but generally state that it is based in theology and not science.
City Honor's Geelan, who teaches a full-year course on evolution, told students last week that scientists start with a hypothesis, then subject it to extensive efforts to show it isn't true.
"Creationists start with a conclusion -- that the Bible's version of the origin of man must be true," he said. "It isn't science because it doesn't do what science does. Aren't we teaching science? Shouldn't we teach what science says?"
That approach is in line with the state's suggested biology curriculum, which describes evolution as "a unifying principle for biological sciences" and a theory that is "supported by observations and inferences from many branches of science."
"Evolution includes the change in characteristics of populations through generations," according to state guidelines. "Thus, existing life forms have evolved from earlier life forms."
New York State's public schools "deal with evolution quite well," said Lawrence S. Lerner, a professor emeritus of physics at California State University-Long Beach, and author of the Fordham Foundation report. "On a statewide level, it's simply not a problem."
Although Slish stresses creationism at Charles Grandison Finney, she is not critical of public schools for the approach they take.
"I don't agree with evolution, but what is a public school supposed to do?" she said. "They follow the general scientific view, and that emphasizes evolution. I don't think public schools can deal with creationism. They're not expressly Christian. They're not expressly biblical."
And the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo high schools?
"We teach the theory of evolution, but first and foremost we teach that God is the creator and that all life comes from God," said brother Robert Bimonte, superintendent of Catholic education.
The teaching of evolution does not conflict with Catholic doctrine as long as it does not deny that the spiritual soul is created by God, brother Bimonte said. And Catholicism does not interpret the biblical story of creation literally.
"We believe that God created, but how God created we don't know."
It could have been in six days, in six years, or over a lengthy period of evolution.
In many respects, Geelan's evolutionary lesson was more specific.
"We're related to this guy," he said, holding up the Neanderthal skull. "We share genes. We can define what a human being is, and that's going to go back about two million years."
While Geelan's biology lessons are permeated with evolution, the students at Charles Grandison Finney discuss it instead in a self-contained unit.
"We go from the viewpoint that God has created everything, and then go on to explain about what God has created," said Susan Thorington, the principal.
At the same time, she said, students need to understand the theory of evolution to prepare for Regents and Advanced Placement exams, and for college.
"You're going to hear your college professors talk all the time about evolution," Slish told her class. "They don't want to hear about creation. The majority of the world doesn't accept our point of view, and you have to hear the other side."