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Assignment for schools: Accomplish more with less Despite a bare-bones budget, Bennett High staff, students go the extra mile to maintain, and try to improve, services

To boost student interest and achievement, Buffalo's Bennett High School plans to create new instructional specialties, including computer science, teaching and business administration.

But the Main Street school, already struggling to maintain a bare-bones academic program, will have to accomplish that without additional staff or money.

Instead, the new material will be squeezed into already existing English, math or social studies classes.

"In my ideal world, I would not have to cut in one area to pick up in another," said Principal Ramona Y. Thomas-Reynolds. "I want to offer my students the best and the extras. Unfortunately, that's not the reality right now."

Bennett and other Buffalo schools have big ambitions on shoestring budgets.

Superintendent James A. Williams recently unveiled a three-year improvement plan for the district. He promises improved graduation rates, higher SAT scores, lower absenteeism and rejuvenated athletic and extracurricular activities to make school fun again.

Plus, he wants a major expansion of electives and Advanced Placement and honors courses.

Although a billion-dollar renovation of city schools is making significant headway, the district faces a major challenge finding teachers to offer those expanded courses.

In the last five years, the Buffalo Public Schools eliminated about 1,000 jobs -- most of them teachers -- and saw enrollment plummet to 36,700 from 45,000.

"We've seen nothing but retrenchment and attrition, across the board," said Donald Van Every, the Board of Education's North District member. "We're losing the things that make it comfortable and attractive for parents to stay in the city."

For now, Bennett scrapes by on teamwork and extra effort.

Neil Lange, a 26-year teaching veteran, gets to Bennett an hour early to monitor the hallways, and stays as much as three hours late to help students with SAT or college applications, schedule classes or coordinate Bennett's building renovation project.

In return for community service credit, four students help Lorraine S. Gasper, the only guidance counselor for Bennett's 660 students, with filing and paperwork.

And when she's not called in as a substitute teacher's aide, Linda Moore comes to school anyway to volunteer in the understaffed attendance office.

"We all lean on each other," Lange said. "We talk to each other. What can we do to help? If everybody taught five classes and left, there wouldn't be a Bennett High School."

Schools across Buffalo face similar dilemmas. For example:

At Early Childhood Center School 82, pupils have art, music and physical education once a week rather than twice. The school also lost an assistant principal, four teacher aides and a part-time typist. Plans to add a guidance counselor were scrapped.

Houghton Academy had to drop an after-school reading program, eliminate Spanish classes for most pupils and cut nursing service to a half-day. The school also lost an assistant principal and a program coordinator.

At Bennett, seniors Darnell Stevens and Uriah Love reel off a list of teachers and staff members who make the extra effort to fill the gaps and take a strong personal interest in their students.

"They try really hard," Darnell said.

But that only goes so far.

>Stripped down to basics

In his quarter century at Bennett, Lange has seen course offerings once rich in electives and Advanced Placement opportunities stripped down largely to the basics -- English, math, social studies and science.

In just the last few years, Bennett cut AP English and biology, and an advanced algebra class was converted to intermediate algebra. Students who want to take physics have to go to another building where several hundred of their classmates are being temporarily placed during the renovation project.

Tony Nash, a Bennett senior, envies a friend who studies marine biology and astronomy at a local suburban school.

"I'm just drooling over courses like that," he said.

Tony plans to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, but said the scarcity of classroom offerings outside Bennett's small law and international studies programs puts students there at a competitive disadvantage.

"We're not really prepared to go to college," he said.

>Williams' high hopes

Williams describes Buffalo's academic program as "very average." He hopes his three-year improvement plan for more electives, AP and honors courses bears fruit.

In the meantime, he urges students to stay focused and determined.

"A lot of us made it in this country with limited resources," he said. "Is that fair? No. But we cannot just give up and accept failure."

Despite the wage freeze imposed by the state control board, Williams said the district plans to find a way to reward employees with a raise. And he is seeking contractual and structural changes that will redirect more money to classroom use and halt the cycle of layoffs and program cuts.

"We have to get out of that mode," he said. "You cannot recruit good people to come in because there's no guarantee they'll have a job the next year."

Close to 20 percent of Bennett's students are absent on any given day, but attendance aide Barbara Wood can give attention to only the most severe cases.

"Somebody should be on the phone constantly, finding out where these kids are," she said. "I can't do that."

The stress takes a heavy toll.

Four or five talented young teachers leave Bennett every year, most of them for jobs in local suburban school districts, said Lange.

He and Lisa Trode, a Bennett English teacher, attribute that to the wage freeze, the heavy demands on Buffalo teachers, the district's residency requirement and negative public perceptions.

"Morale gets down," Trode said. "We're always pictured as the bad guys. People think everything's for the money. But that's not true."

Lange said the cuts have been aimed disproportionately at teachers and others who work directly with students, that the district is top-heavy with administrators, and that schools are not given enough decision-making powers.

"We hear about the fights," he said. "We hear about kids failing. We hear about health insurance. I'd like to hear about students and teachers staying at school until 5 o'clock working on the yearbook. I'd like to hear about kids who come to school every day and do their best."

e-mail: psimon@buffnews.com

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