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Competing for students Stepping Stone's closure prompts recruiting drive

Competition for students has never been more intense, and the state's decision to close Buffalo's Stepping Stone Academy Charter School has dramatically underlined that reality.

That was evident Tuesday evening when charter, parochial and traditional public schools converged at Stepping Stone seeking to enroll 600 pupils who will leave the East Ferry Street school in June.

Like a college fair, school officials drummed up interest with slick brochures, posters, on-the-spot enrollment forms and even free water bottles.

Buffalo School Superintendent James A. Williams told about 60 Stepping Stone parents that the school district will keep Stepping Stone students together at a single school if 400 of them return to the district as a group.

The urgency of Williams' message was underlined by the presence of six Board of Education members, at least that many top staff members and the president of the district's parent council.

"Take a look again at education in a traditional public school," urged Betty Jean Grant, the Ferry District board member. "We would love to have you back to help the children succeed in Buffalo."

Traditional city schools aren't alone in their efforts to boost en rollment and gain a leg up in the city's competitive educational environment.

Outside the meeting room, four charter schools and a Catholic school set up information booths. Buffalo United Charter school took more than 15 applications, and some parents said they applied to three different charter schools. Catholic Central School emphasized its extended school day and small class sizes -- which are also features of Stepping Stone -- and the availability of financial aid.

"It's amazing how many people don't know what's out there," said the Rev. James Joyce, the school's canonical administrator. "We can't solve all the problems [for Stepping Stone parents], but we want to be part of the mix."

Although it was not represented Tuesday, Kolbe Catholic Regional School is distributing a customized brochure for Stepping Stone parents. Several other Catholic schools are planning tours, open houses and newspaper ads, said Kevin A. Keenan, director of communications for the Diocese of Buffalo.

The State University of New York earlier this month ordered Stepping Stone to close at the end of this school year because of poor academic performance. It now enrolls about 600 students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

Sonseare Taggart, the Parent Advisory Council's liaison to Stepping Stone administrators, said she will try to convince parents of 400 children to return them to traditional city schools so they can remain together.

Holly Swans filled out three charter school applications Tuesday evening and said she hopes to keep her son, Kory Rollins, in the charter school system. "I think they have a better learning environment," she said. "Kory has improved a lot since he came here."

Paul Colvin said he also hopes to switch his daughter, Brittany, to another charter school. "If that doesn't pan out, I'll probably try a private school," he said.

Williams said he is working with district unions and the Board of Education to provide an extended school day, Saturday remedial sessions and school uniforms at the as yet unidentified school that would house former Stepping Stone pupils.

But he said at least 400 pupils are needed to make that work. "If it's less than 400, we will have to assign you to different buildings," Williams said.

Stepping Stone parents need to move quickly if they decide to enroll their children individually in traditional public schools, since lottery drawings are being held next week. In addition, some charter schools have already conducted their lotteries for next year and have few openings.

William Boatwright, the Stepping Stone principal, said he is helping parents find appropriate new schools and will not try to steer them in any one direction. "There is a lot of competition for students," he said. "That says there is a viable community out there interested in educating our children."

e-mail: psimon@buffnews.com

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