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WESTMINSTER, A PUBLIC SCHOOL WITH A DIFFERENCE

"Good morning, Dr. Ragan!"

The voices are young, crisply in unison. A classroom full of young children, with smiles ranging from shy to beaming, is suddenly on its collective feet -- except for one young man intent on the paper before him.

"I'm waiting," Yvonne S. Minor-Ragan says gently, addressing the youngster by name. As he scrambles to his feet, amused classmates give voice to their greeting again.

Welcome to Westminster Community School No. 68 -- once one of the worst elementary schools in Buffalo, and now one of the best.

Thanks to a major infusion of financial backing by M&T Bank, ground-breaking agreements by the school board and the teachers' union, and the talents of a highly-credentialed and nationally-honored school administrator lured here from Chicago, there's now a waiting list for spots in this model Kensington-Bailey school. Parents of children who lose out in the admissions lottery -- including at least one who moved into the neighborhood just to have the chance -- have been known to turn away in tears.

Westminster Community School may be the closest thing Buffalo now has to a charter school. It may be better. But it's part and parcel of the existing public school system.

Along with that system's magnet schools and such grant-aided efforts as the Broadway Village Community School, it also stands as proof that public schools can reform to meet the needs that are driving parents to consider the charter alternative. But that reform is not easy -- and in the case of Westminster, it hasn't been cheap either.

Under the leadership of chairman and CEO Robert G. Wilmers, M&T Bank made a nine-year commitment of $500,000 to $800,000 a year in cash and in-kind services to the effort to turn around a school under state review for its poor pupil performance. The school-bank partnership supplements Minor-Ragan's standard school principal salary but, more importantly, has renovated and brightened the building as well as providing new computers and other equipment, volunteer mentors from the bank, a full-time guidance counselor, a health clinic, art and music courses, physical education in a refurbished gym, more teachers, teacher training by Columbia University experts, and after-school activities.

The Buffalo Teachers Federation and Buffalo Board of Education also signed on to the partnership, allowing changes in areas from teacher assignments to creation of a separate Westminster school board -- one which includes the active participation of both Wilmers and BTF president Philip Rumore.

At Westminster, visitors are greeted by a parent. Volunteer parents are involved in daily activities, and attend "coffee sips" and other meetings. The school has its own board of directors, drawn from the community as well as the school system.

There's also a no-nonsense approach to behavior and discipline. And a dress code.

If that sounds like familiar ground in the charter-school debate, it should.

"We are kind of a charter school," mused Minor-Ragan, whose own enthusiasm and leadership is widely credited in the turn-around. "There are things that kind of parallel the charter school concept. But I think people are going to find it's not easy."

"Along with the money, it has to be a lot of hard work. My teachers are exhausted."

The partnership in now in its seventh year. In 1993 only 26 percent of the third-graders at Westminster scored above the remedial level on state reading tests. Now, the tally is more than 94 percent.

"All kids can learn, and if they're not learning it's something we're not doing," Minor-Ragan said. "I think it was a matter of everyone feeling disenfranchised."

That has changed -- for parents, teachers, and children.

"We expect respect," Minor-Ragan said. "And it's mutual respect."

"I can teach, here," said science teacher Ron Baxter. "Other places, I had to babysit. The kids are the same -- but we have high expectations, and what we expect we get."

"Yes, we discipline them. The standards are tough," added program developer Pastora Bolden. "And there's accountability to goals, but teachers are valued. And there's the true pleasure of really inviting parents to be involved."

Westminster isn't alone. Buffalo's extensive parochial school system, aside from taking some of the educational pressure off city schools, routinely turns in better pupil performance in a cash-strapped system with some charter-like characteristics.

"We think we invented the theory behind charter schools," said Brother Robert R. Bimonte, diocesan superintendent of Catholic education. "The Catholic Church firmly believes in parental choice in education, and we teach very firmly that parents are the primary educators of their child."

The law doesn't allow private schools to convert to charters, the way public schools can. Even if it did, Brother Robert said, Catholic schools wouldn't give up their religious identity to do so -- and charters, he believes, will draw more pupils from public than parochial schools.

"You have to keep in mind that Catholic schools have a proven track record, and to date charter schools don't," he added.

At Westminster, a better public education track record is taking shape.

"It was a tremendous amount of hard work," Minor-Ragan said. "We're about putting into action all of the best practices that have been researched and proven effective."

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