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Trapped kids need to get a fair shake

Normally the warning "Consider the source" is good advice.

But in pondering the merits of boarding schools to help Buffalo kids shortchanged by district schools, the opposite applies: Disregard the fact that the idea comes from Carl Paladino.

Instead, consider that people who have proven they care about low-income urban kids also see the merit of providing them with the advantages that boarding schools have long offered the well-off. Some advocates have even found ways to do it at no cost to poor families.

One of the best examples is the SEED School of Washington, D.C., a public charter school that takes all comers. Like Buffalo-area charters, it picks kids through a lottery because demand exceeds the available space.

The difference is that SEED's 330 students live on campus during the week, going home only on weekends.

How much of a difference does that make? In the gritty, urban neighborhood where SEED is located, it can make all the difference.

SEED boasts a 91 percent graduation rate, a figure neither the D.C. nor the Buffalo district comes close to. The school says 97 percent of its graduates have been accepted at four-year colleges and universities.

The students wear uniforms, have after-school study halls, and lights are out by 10 p.m. They live in single-sex dorms without TV but with tutors, counselors and other supportive staffers.

The campus is fenced and has security guards, a spokeswoman said, so kids can't leave. More importantly, outsiders can't get in. That means the threats and distractions of the street that derail so many young lives are kept at bay. Many of these kids are getting this kind of structure for the first time in their lives.

Critics note that boarding school is not inexpensive. A foundation raised money to open SEED -- Schools for Educational Evolution and Development -- in 1998, but it now gets taxpayer money, just like other public charters.

D.C. gives SEED about $35,000 per kid, with $25,000 of that going for room and board. Backers note that housing the kids costs less than foster care, incarceration or some of the alternatives many kids would otherwise require. And the societal payoff is huge.

Buffalo schools, despite recent progress, leave much to be desired even though the state's last tally in 2007-08 showed them spending $17,00 per kid while sending them home each night. Divide total spending by enrollment -- a formula that school folks hate -- and you get $28,000 per kid for lousy results. No wonder one Common Council member -- himself a former School Board member -- advocates a "complete overhaul," while another would limit city funding.

Facing reality, some school officials agree that boarding schools might be a good, if expensive, idea. Critics -- the millionaire Paladino? -- and Buffalo foundations might start thinking about how they could contribute.

Granted, in one sense, such schools are a giant Band-Aid.

If the problems are dysfunctional families or crime-plagued neighborhoods that swallow up kids, the larger question is how we help those families or provide businesses, jobs and safe streets so that those neighborhoods function like any other.

But those are long-term issues that we can't -- or don't care to -- resolve any time soon. In the meantime, kids trapped in some Buffalo neighborhoods deserve a fair chance.

Paladino, for those who want to forget, was the GOP gubernatorial candidate who raised some valid issues before racist e-mails, threats against reporters and other peccadilloes denied New Yorkers the benefit of his leadership. Now, like a nagging virus, he won't go away.

But a public boarding school for Buffalo is an idea whose time has come, regardless of who the idea comes from.

e-mail: rwatson@buffnews.com

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