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CRISIS COUNSELING, 'CRITICAL' FOR STUDENTS, WILL COST THE DISTRICT

Everyone's pleased that troubled youngsters now will have access to social workers in Buffalo schools, but this gain in the teachers contract involved heavy trade-offs for the board.

As the Buffalo Teachers Federation and the Buffalo School District sift through last week's settlement, district officials say they paid a high price for their biggest gain: special help for troubled students.

Under the new five-year contract, community agencies will send staff into city schools to provide counseling, social work services and other assistance to students who have personal or family crises. In many cases, those same agencies expect to also work with the families of such students.

In the end, several district officials came out feeling that they had to give up more than they planned -- in terms of pay raises, givebacks and general strife -- all for the sake of getting the troubled youngsters help they need from community agencies.

Central District Member Jan Peters, who heads the Buffalo Federation of Neighborhood Centers -- one of the city's largest anti-poverty agencies -- called the inclusion of the community agencies clause "critical." But she also called the contract "very costly to the district."

The contract guarantees teachers pay raises every six months for four of its five years. A teacher who starts this year, with a master's degree and no experience, at $33,505, will earn $42,487 by the end of the contract.

The district predicts a budget gap of $12.2 million by the end of the contract.

Superintendent Marion Canedo summed up the trade-off succinctly.

"We've looked at the salary. We've looked at the givebacks," she said. "One of the most important things is the health and human services resources. We had agencies wanting to come in and help our students and children, and we weren't able to do that."

Both the district and the teachers union say they have wanted the agencies' help in the schools for years. Yet the discussion of how to accomplish that became one of the most contentious points in negotiations, as the union pressed for assurances that outside agency staff would not be used to fill jobs that should go to union members.

The state mediators' proposal crafted language that both sides found acceptable.

"I look at the concession to allow health and human service agencies to come in as one that didn't cost the BTF as much," said Donald Van Every, an at-large School Board member and chairman of the board's budget and audit committee. "It's one I think they could have given sooner. It came at a very heavy price, I thought -- two days of a strike, three weeks of turmoil."

The union's top official said how the district went after the agencies' inclusion was the issue.

"We've wanted to do that from the beginning," said BTF President Philip Rumore. "It was a point of contention, but only because of the language (the district) submitted. The way it was worded would have allowed them to replace just about anyone on an attrition basis. Their language was really frightening. We told them we could never do that."

Of all the district's gains in the settlement, the admission of the community social service agencies has garnered the most attention. In 1996, Mayor Anthony M. Masiello began urging the school district to open "family-support centers" in school buildings that could connect troubled students and their families directly with services.

Robert M. Bennett, a member of the state Board of Regents from Western New York and outgoing president of the United Way of Buffalo & Erie County, has also been a longtime advocate of the centers, citing their success in several Western New York school districts.

And Helene Kramer, School Board president from 1998 to 1999, recalled the board's interest in seeing more services in the schools during her tenure. She called the admission of the human service agencies "one of the biggest gains" in the settlement.

Those working most closely with students say the need for more counseling and crisis management in the schools is critical.

Signs of disrupted lives and troubled homes abound. At the Bilingual Early Childhood Center School 36 in the city's Allentown neighborhood, food service staff have noted that children are especially hungry on Mondays -- a sign that food supplies at home may be low.

At 11 of the district's highest-need schools, more than 85 percent of the children live in poverty. Transiency rates exceed 40 percent at some schools, with children losing precious academic ground as they withdraw from and re-enroll in school once, twice or even three times in the same year.

And throughout the district, principals and teachers can recount incidents where home strife and street violence have spilled into their schools' hallways.

Jon Lyon, principal of Emerson Vocational High School, has publicly spoken out at board meetings about the need for more social workers in his schools.

Three of his teachers, as well as the school's security officers and administrators, are all trained in crisis counseling. In a true emergency -- for example, the death of a student -- he has been able to get school social workers into his building to help children cope with their grief and reactions. But he doesn't have what he really needs: a full-time counselor or social worker assigned to his building.

"On any given day, we have dozens of students come in with very serious problems," Lyon said in an interview last spring, noting that at the time he spoke, he was trying to help two students who were, as he put it, "virtually homeless."

Such problems require urgent attention, Lyon said, and force him to take time away from the academic mission of meeting the new Regents standards.

"It's very difficult to do all of those things and be responsible for all of those things and act as a psychologist or a social worker, neither of which I am trained in," Lyon said. "In the end, I refer them to other agencies. I wish we had someone right here to help them."

Soon he will. Emerson is one of 20 schools in the district identified as a "community-support school" and targeted for special help through the district and the state Education Department.

Toward that end, a group of district and community leaders -- including the United Way's Bennett, Rumore and several dozen district officials -- started meeting since last year to devise ways to help those community-support schools.

The "Closing the Gap" task force, as the group is known, is already studying the best way to bring human service agencies into the schools, Bennett said in an interview last week. Now, with the district authorized to do so under the contract, the effort should move quickly.

Bennett declined to comment as a Regent on the recent labor turmoil in Buffalo but praised the concession that will allow the agencies entrance to the schools.

"At the same time, the Regents have moved to the front of their list closing the gap for the schools that are in desperate need," he said. "I'm very, very pleased, in both roles really, that there is a final acknowledgment that we can address the family-life issues in a way that impacts school performance."

Was the admission of the human service agencies to schools worth the price the district paid in terms of salary increases to the teachers?

"I don't know how to answer that," Bennett replied. "I think it was worth it, period. Because the ultimate savings will be found in major improvements in families, and we expect increased academic achievement."

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