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Taking advantage of school closings is urged Falls principal urges looking at academy concept

While city education officials plan to close at least two schools next year, Lawrence Martinez, principal of 66th Street School, said the School Board also should consider reconfiguring its elementary buildings to improve pupil performance.

While Martinez admits closing schools -- maybe his own -- "has to happen" because of declining enrollment, he said the board also should take the opportunity to improve the quality of its educational programs.

That can happen by considering setting up one or more fourth- through sixth-grade academies designed to help pupils do better, he said.

The academies would feature an expanded school day, possibly a half-hour longer. The move also could feature partner schools, which serve kindergarten through third grade and whose pupils would remain together at the same academy when they move on to fourth grade.

Martinez said the extra time could be used to have each grade focus on a specific skill area, possibly language arts in the fourth grade, mathematics in the fifth grade and science and technology in the sixth grade.

"The same thing would happen in music and art," he said. "Every kid would participate in the band, where some students might use simpler instruments, like a recorder or a modified flute, and sing in the chorus and put on performances."

Under such an academy system, elementary teachers could specialize in one or two subjects, instead of four, and work in teams so they would be able to provide pupils more materials in more depth, Martinez said.

He said that such an approach is becoming more necessary as subjects become more demanding and complex. He said there are situations today in which concepts that once were not introduced until high school are being introduced in fifth grade, requiring more of teachers and pupils.

Time might show that what the School Board currently is considering "is exactly what should be done," Martinez said, "[but] I wanted to challenge them to do something different than simply consolidating schools because it might be the easy thing to do."

With proposals that would either keep sixth-graders at the middle school level or return them to elementary schools, Martinez said, "In all those conversations, quality in our schools has never been mentioned, at least not that I've heard.

"They seem to be focusing on where they are going to put the sixth-graders, but I've seen nobody presenting data that says educationally you're better doing one thing or the other. Or that you're better off having a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school or having partner schools that are K through three and four through six like I've suggested. Or is it better to put sixth-graders in the primaries or keep them in the middle schools?

"So I challenge them, when they are presenting their scenarios, that they really should have some evidence behind what they are doing. It shouldn't just be about what we're going to do next year to close a couple of schools. It's a tremendous opportunity to restructure all the schools if we find it would work and make our schools better," Martinez said.

If the board decides to try out the academy concept, Martinez said it could set up a pilot program and later expand it if it proves effective. He said he has read that other school districts have found that academy schools work well. He said the schools also would have a board of directors that could study school programs and operations and make recommendations to the superintendent and the School Board.

Board President Robert Kazeangin Jr. said he likes Martinez's proposal, "but I don't think it fits in with what we need to implement next month."

"It would be wonderful to have an academy type of school in our district," Kazeangin said, "but that's something we can look at after we do the initial cutbacks we need to make so we can plan for next year's budget. We need to do something drastic right now."

With the district facing falling enrollment and a projected $6.5 million deficit in 2007-08, Kazeangin said the board has to get rid of buildings so it uses its schools and classrooms more efficiently. He said the district has 106 classrooms that are not being used for instruction, so two schools need to be closed. Doing that, he said, will not cut one program.

The board is looking at three scenarios, each of which would close Niagara Middle and 60th Street schools. Two also would close 66th Street School and move most of the pupils who attend the two grade schools to Niagara Middle, which would be converted to a large elementary school.

School Superintendent Carmen A. Granto is expected to recommend a proposal to the School Board on Jan. 11, Kazeangin said, and the board is expected to make a final decision Jan. 18.

e-mail: pwestmoore@buffnews.com

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