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Stepping Stone Academy ordered by state to close at year's end Charter school will focus on relocating its pupils

Stepping Stone Academy Charter School was ordered Monday by the state to close at the end of this school year, making it the first area charter school to be shut down because of poor academic performance.

The decision prompted Stepping Stone officials to focus their efforts on helping 600 pupils locate new schools for September.

"Our priority is closing the school with dignity and making sure our students find appropriate schools," said William Boatwright, Stepping Stone principal. "First and foremost, we have a responsibility to the children."

Buffalo School Superintendent James A. Williams said he hopes to attract the bulk of the Stepping Stone pupils back to traditional city schools and to keep them together as a group.

Opening an empty building and using it largely or exclusively for former Stepping Stone pupils is one option being considered, Williams said.

Because of low pupil performance at Stepping Stone, Williams said he will probably seek a waiver from the state stipulating that test scores of those pupils not be included in the district results until 2007-08.

Citing poor academic performance, the State University of New York on Monday denied Stepping Stone's application to renew its initial five-year charter. SUNY previously shut down four charter schools in other parts of the state but none in the Buffalo area, where 15 charter schools now enroll 5,600 students.

Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, echoed Williams' comments that Stepping Stone pupils will be welcomed in traditional city schools.

"We hate to see any school closed, because we're talking about kids," he said. "But we hope they would come back to the Buffalo Public Schools. We can help them."

Boatwright said school officials will provide information to parents on both charter schools and traditional public schools.

The initial recommendation to close Stepping Stone was issued in January, giving parents a chance to sort through their options, said Sonseare Taggart, the Parent Advisory Council's liaison to Stepping Stone administrators.

"At first it was like an emotional roller coaster ride," she said. "I was angry. I was sad. I know now what they're going to do, so my husband and I know what we have to do for our kids."

The Taggarts' two school-age children, now in first and fourth grade at Stepping Stone, have been accepted at Westminster Community Charter School for classes beginning in September.

Stepping Stone, located at 909 E. Ferry St., enrolls about 600 children in kindergarten through eighth grade.

Taggart described the loss of Stepping Stone as "heartbreaking."

"It's like your family is leaving town," she said. "You know you'll see them again, but not as often as you do now."

Monday's vote was based on a report from SUNY's Charter Schools Institute that cited dismal academic performance, administrative disarray, serious disciplinary problems and distracted and disengaged pupils.

Stepping Stone challenged the recommendation, and a follow-up report found recent improvements in those areas but not enough to warrant an extension of the school's charter.

Boatwright expressed disappointment in SUNY's decision and thanked teachers, parents and pupils who were involved in the recent improvement effort.

James D. Merriman, executive director of SUNY's Charter Schools Institute, described a charter school's license as a promise to improve student performance and said the majority of the state's charter schools accomplish that.

"Schools that don't do that must be and will be closed," he said.

e-mail: psimon@buffnews.com

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