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NEEDY PUPILS SHOULDN'T PAY PRICE OF TERROR

We'll call her Alyshia. She has a shy smile, large brown eyes and braided hair. Tuesday, she wore a bright purple shirt to pre-K, though she couldn't tell you because she doesn't know colors, even though she's 4 years old.

Her friend, whom we'll call Aquilla, wore a shirt with a picture of a teddy bear. When asked what it was, she smiled but said nothing.

"She has some language problems," said Barb Fitzgerald, her teacher. (The children's names have been changed.)

We are at School 74, in the heart of Buffalo's inner city. There are 4- and 5-year-olds here who know their colors and letters, whose moms bring in candy apples for the class. But that's not most of them.

Some of these kids never saw a pumpkin until the field trip to a farm, and never leave the neighborhood, much less go on vacation. Because of the weight of broken families and broken dreams, they are behind from the first day they come to school.

And now, because terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center, they will be farther behind.

The devastation in lower Manhattan is incinerating the state budget. Gone up in smoke is the $28 million that presumably was headed to Buffalo schools, where teachers buy pencils and paper, where families can't scrape up six bucks for a field trip, where computers are slower than mud. Schools where, for some kids, a field trip to Chestnut Ridge Park is a journey to another planet.

Within weeks the district will lay off about 200 teachers, cut 60 teacher's aides, and jettison sports, field trips and extra study help. It is a devastating blow to a devastated district.

Fitzgerald has taught here for 10 years; there is still bounce in her step. She is a quiet hero. She can't believe this will happen.

"It angers me," she said, "that terrorists will take away the future of these kids, who didn't do anything to anybody."

Her kids need more from school than kids from two-car, white-collar homes -- homes where kids are read to before they can talk and are taken to the zoo before they can walk.

Teachers at School 74 do a lot with what they have. There's a fish tank in Fitzgerald's room, plenty of books, a play kitchen. Second-year Principal Fran Wilson has lifted spirits. School is hope and salvation for some of these kids, the last line of defense. That line keeps breaking.

It should not be this way. Billions in aid is headed for New York City. The airlines were thrown a life raft. But politicians in Washington and the governor say helping anybody outside of Manhattan is a heavy lift.

Which means that kids who had no chance of seeing the twin towers when they were standing will suffer because they're not, that replacing buildings is more important than building futures. Do we really believe that?

It's a question that our U.S. senators, Chuck Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton, and all of our people in Congress and in Albany should take to work with them each day.

They should think about Kerry Clarke, a kindergarten teacher two years out of college. She has the class two doors from Fitzgerald's. A couple of her kids are in foster homes; she has had kids who didn't know their names.

"You ask them the first day and it's like: 'Name? I have a name?' " she said. "Either they're called something else at home or they're not called much at all."

Most of these kids are in better shape. And plenty of their parents care. But you don't get personal days or vacation weeks when you work at Burger King.

"It costs $6 for each child to go to the pumpkin farm," said Clarke. "For a lot of these parents, it might as well be $50."

If these kids don't get what they need now, it gets harder. This is Ann Marie Fish's best third-grade class in her four years at the school. Twenty of the 26 kids can't read at average grade level. The best.

If the money doesn't come, if hundreds of teachers and aides go, the terrorists will claim more victims. You won't hear their names on the news or see their small faces. But they will be hurt as surely as if they felt the heat and breathed the dust at ground zero.

Sept. 11 changed many things in the world. It should not make the world of these kids harder than it already is.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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