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Imagine a school where everyone's an honor student, bright and inquisitive, backed by a supportive family and eager to please the teacher.

It's going to happen only in our dreams.

Now imagine the opposite, a school where every student either has been kicked out of school or suspended several times. Many have been abused or neglected at home, with no positive connection to any adult. Most don't know the meaning of success, or even how to spell it.

Sounds more like a nightmare. But this school is reality.

Welcome to Baker Victory Day Treatment Program in Lackawanna. Or any of the three Stanley G. Falk Schools. Or the Gateway-Longview Day School-Treatment Program in Williamsville.

This is the safety net, a paper-thin and underfunded protective shield for at-risk kids, some of them extremely bright. For many, this is their last chance before plunging into real trouble -- and a possible life on the streets.

"There's a perception that these are bad kids, that they've done something wrong," Jessie Kaye, chief operating officer at Gateway-Longview, said of these students. "They're not coming to us as punishment. They're coming to us because they need help."

Students who don't make the grade at these schools might find themselves in free fall, tumbling toward the kind of reckless lifestyle that exhibited itself in the recent killing of James J. Mack.

The specter of the five young people charged with murdering Mack hovers over these schools like an angry storm cloud, a reminder of what can happen if teachers, counselors and students don't make a positive connection.

When they hear about young people involved in such a horrific crime, these educators share an almost universal reaction.

They hold their breath.

"You look at the names and faces on the news, and you hope it's not one of the kids you know," said Susan Colvin, the school nurse at Baker Victory.

And even when they learn their students weren't involved, these teachers and administrators feel as if they've failed.

Troubled kids, crying for help, with nobody able to help them.

At Baker Victory, Falk School and Gateway-Longview, teachers in small classes work quietly and patiently with their students, forging a strong bond that helps turn most of these "problem kids" into productive students.

Here, young people's lives are saved -- and in a few cases, lost.

"We feel that when a student is accepted at Falk School, it's like they've won the lottery," said Bill Maloney, director of student services. "We like to feel we save a lot of kids."

The schools are vastly different from most public schools.

The teacher ratio typically is 6-1-1: six students, one special-education teacher and a teacher's aide. Students get regular group and individual counseling. The discipline is tight, the school day highly structured, but students don't get suspended. In some buildings, each teacher or counselor knows every student. And teachers suspect there are fewer fights and confiscated weapons than in a public school.

The public pays plenty for these schools.

For 12 months at Baker Victory Day Treatment, each student's home school district pays $28,800, although the state reimburses about 90 percent of that. Compare that with a roughly $6,000 price tag in the Buffalo public schools.

The scariest thing about these programs?

They can't come close to meeting the demand.

Baker Victory Day Treatment has 57 students, ages 7 to 19 -- and a waiting list of about 50. Gateway-Longview administrators say their various residential programs have had to turn away about 1,300 youths in the last two years, many because of lack of space.

Most got into other programs or found help somewhere else.

But not all.

There's a basic premise echoed by administrators at these schools. These aren't unreachable kids, just kids with problems that couldn't be solved in a regular school setting.

Almost all these kids have been labeled "emotionally disturbed" by their home districts' Committee on Special Education, and many acted out aggressively. Many -- but not all -- come from families beset by mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, physical or sexual abuse, domestic violence or lack of any consistent parenting. Some have their own psychiatric problems.

"People don't realize the pain and anguish these kids have gone through," said Elizabeth A. Gioia, coordinator of residential intake at Gateway-Longview. "Some people are so quick to judge and so willing to abdicate the responsibility for helping these kids out."

Reacting to a murder

Maureen Wilhelm, a fourth-grade teacher at Falk School in the Town of Tonawanda, remembered reading about the young people charged with killing Mack.

"It was like reading the backgrounds of some of the kids here," she said. "I was thinking, maybe we weren't there when they needed us, or they weren't lucky enough to get into Falk. It's not a question of who's to blame, but it's a shame that nobody could step in and do something, anything, for them."

And yet the lure of the streets offers tough competition for these schools. Gangs, even informal groups of lost kids living together, offer a sense of peer acceptance and family to many troubled youths.

"We lose a lot of kids to the streets," said Colvin, the Baker Victory nurse. "It's too lucrative out there. You can hang out with your buds and make money selling drugs. They have a sense of belonging out there. Their peer connection is so important to them."

Donald Kirsch, a high school English teacher at Falk, wasn't surprised that no Falk students were involved in incidents like the Mack murder.

He and others believe youths who drift to the streets and act out violently have no grounding, no positive link to any adult, no place where they belong.

"One of the reasons I don't see our kids doing something like this is because they do belong somewhere," Kirsch said. "They belong with us. For many of our kids, this is the most stable place they have. If they can't go anywhere else, they know they can come here."

Some educators rail at all the attention given to one killing, no matter how horrific.

"All the tragedies that happen every day that aren't so publicized -- all the kids sexually abused or beaten in their homes -- they don't get our attention," Kaye said. "If people were as aware of that as they are of this one child being murdered, there would be more dollars available for preventive services and treatment programs like ours."

Where they'd be

The four students, aged 12 to 15, sit around a large conference table and talk about the self-respect they've gained and the acceptance they've found in the Baker Victory program.

And they talk about where they've been, and where they might be, without it.

Iraisa, 15: "I've got friends who are in jail. I don't talk to them anymore. I used to be in a gang, because I guess it made me be tough. I thought I was being cool. I was being stupid."

Nick, 14: "I'd probably be in jail. I used to be a hard guy."

Jerome, 15: "I think I'd be dead. I got into a lot of fights wherever I'd go."

Ernest: "I'd probably be out on the streets or running away to my friend's house or in a hospital or dead. I used to fight with a lot of people."

Ernest is only 12 years old.

Every morning, when students get off the bus to enter the Falk School, five to 10 teachers and counselors greet them -- individually, by name. So if a student's having a bad day and grunts at everyone who greets him, school officials know within minutes.

At Baker Victory Day Treatment on Ridge Road in Lackawanna, every teacher and counselor knows all 57 students. Once a week, eight professionals working with a child sit down to discuss how he is doing.

"Our philosophy is to individualize to the umpteenth degree," said David Gordon, director of the Baker Victory program.

Most of these students have flopped in a regular school. Here, they're no longer the problem kid.

"There is some security that everybody has a problem, that everybody sees a counselor, that everybody's in therapy," Gordon said. "There's kind of an underlying sense that they're all in this together."

Some acted out in their former schools, for attention or to be suspended. Here, they know they're not going to be cut adrift.

"A lot of these kids have never had a positive relationship with an adult," said Mary Nixon, Baker Victory's clinical coordinator. "They've pushed people away. We don't let them do that to us."

Nobody asked her

The 14-year-old girl with the beautiful voice sits down inside a Gateway-Longview building and talks in quiet tones about her troubled upbringing:

Having a schizophrenic mother. Leaving home at age 4 to live with an aunt. Fighting in school, starting at age 9. Drifting from school to school in Buffalo. Flouting the rules in her foster home.

Finally, she was taken to Family Court and declared a PINS, a person in need of supervision. Now she lives in a Gateway-Longview group home and talks about her potential: college, maybe a jazz singing career or law school.

And she thinks she understands what triggered her aggressive behavior.

"I was crying out for help," she says of her belligerence. "You want people to notice, so they can do something about it. Nobody really asked me, 'Why do you do things like this?' They thought I was just a bad kid."

At Gateway-Longview, people sit with her, listen to her, cry with her.

"That's all you really need," she says, "someone who cares and loves you and respects you and tells you you can do anything."

Last chance

It happened late one afternoon, when teacher Kirsch was leaving the Falk School.

Two young children from the neighborhood, no older than 7 or 8, stood outside the school's front door, their faces flush against the glass, trying to peer inside.

"Is this a school for bad kids?" one of them asked Kirsch. "No, it's not a school for bad kids," he answered. "It's a school for kids who have made bad decisions."

Kirsch is emphatic on this point.

"They have a lot of problems, and some of them don't know how to handle them," Kirsch said. "But there's something good about every one of them."

For many, this is their last chance to prove it.

Wednesday: Compass House.

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