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QUICK ACTION URGED ON SCHOOL CHOICE

Buffalo's landmark plan to give parents more choice in where their children attend school will lose crucial momentum and public support if it is not enacted soon, Board of Education members said Wednesday evening.

Tentative details of the plan were outlined to the board's Choice Committee, but district officials declined to say when the reform measure will be operating. Board members urged them to move quickly.

"I think we've created a sense out there that something's happening soon," said Donald A. VanEvery, an at-large member. "I think the public's going to demand it."

Jan Peters, the Central District board member and chairwoman of the committee, said at least the first portions of the choice plan should be in operation next September, as district administrators stated earlier this year.

"Some people think they have the choice right now, and you have to tell them no," she said. "I don't think we can afford to wait two years. I think we need to figure out something that you can release."

Under the plan, the district will be divided into three attendance zones, with boundaries formed by the Kensington and Scajaquada expressways, and by Fillmore Avenue and Smith Street. Students could apply to any elementary or middle schools within their zones.

Under a draft proposal discussed Wednesday, each zone would have between six and 10 prekindergarten through eighth-grade "theme schools," four or five prekindergarten through fourth-grade early childhood centers and one or two fifth- through eighth-grade middle schools.

Each zone also would contain a gifted school, a Montessori or Discovery school and an "international school" for students with limited English skills, all of which would serve those in prekindergarten through eighth grade.

There also would be 12 citywide elementary schools and three alternative schools. After eighth grade, students would choose from among 12 or 13 "comprehensive high schools."

District officials hope to enroll as many as 80 percent of the city's 46,000 students in their first-choice schools. Only about one-third of the students who now apply to magnet schools receive their first choice.

Even while instituting a dramatic overhaul, district officials said Wednesday they will try to keep as many schools as possible operating largely as they are now.

"We've always had an eye on minimizing change," said Mel L. Alston, associate superintendent for plant services and school planning. "It's not our intention to turn the schools upside down."

Where there are more applicants than available slots, preference would be given to students living near the school and those who have siblings enrolled there.

Under the proposal discussed Wednesday, other students within the attendance zone would be chosen by lottery, and pupils from other attendance zones would fill any remaining slots.

Many tough issues must still be tackled. For example:

Rapid, dramatic changes in enrollment policies could remove lots of students from their current schools. "All hell's going to break loose if we don't satisfy those families already in the school," VanEvery said.

"Maybe we need a grace period," added Denise Hanlon, the board's North District member.

The current enrollment boundaries divide the Olmsted schools into two zones. Hanlon and Peters urged district officials to remedy that.

The effort has to be coordinated with a $1 billion plan to renovate most of the district's 78 schools and to build six new ones. But because the first phase of the construction is proceeding more quickly, some of the renovation will be planned before it is known what grades a school will serve or what its educational program will consist of.

Though figures have not been pinpointed, the plan will be expensive.

"We can plan whatever we want, but we have to come back to you and say, 'This is what it's going to cost to get there,' " said Janice Ferguson, a district director involved in drafting the proposal.

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