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Introducing the newest textbook: iPad

The School Zone invited all nine members of Buffalo's Board of Education to share with readers what they learned at the conferences they attended this fall. We'll post the responses in the order they come in.

Lou Petrucci Lou Petrucci, who represents the Park District, was the first to respond, sharing his thoughts on a few topics. Today, we're posting Lou's thoughts on the latest in textbooks, which he learned at the New York State School Boards Association conference in New York City:

"Most people ask themselves what is the benefit to attending a trade show and listening to the assorted sales pitches of the various vendors. For a board member, it provides the opportunity to see new and innovative products. It provides a point of comparison between how your district operates and how the district may function in the future.

"With respect to vendors, I had opportunity to listen to the latest in technology from Houghton Mifflin. Their newest innovation was the textbook as an application for an iPad or similar touch-screen device. This is presently being tested in school districts in California.

"An electronic textbook has a variety of advantages. There are no printing costs. The book can be readily updated and customized. As a parent of four children, I know all too well the weight of a book bag full of texts.

Ipad "The electronic version also has a series of links to video, reference, and other related supporting material. My one daughter is presently taking trigonometry. There are evenings when she literally has an open textbook next to the laptop where she is researching help for the question, and has her calculator going, also. An electronic textbook would combine and simplify the present system.

"The other interesting conversation was that Houghton Mifflin could customize a textbook for a region. For example, you are studying American history. HM could customize the textbook to incorporate Buffalo and Western New York’s individual contribution to that aspect. You are studying the impact of the automobile on America. Your textbook could talk about the Buffalo Electric Vehicle Company or the Pierce Arrow Company. The potential to make history more engaging by linking it to local sites was deserving of further conversation, in my opinion."

- Mary Pasciak

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Readers respond: What makes schools great

Many thanks to all the School Zone readers who wrote in to tell us what makes their schools great! Responses flowed in from all around: city and suburbs; private, charter and traditional public schools; elementary, middle and high schools. We heard from teachers, aides, assistants, secretaries, social workers, students, principals and parents.

The common theme? People.

The interpersonal relationships in a school trump just about everything you can think of, even if you have the most cutting-edge technology, the strongest curriculum, and the fanciest building, readers say.

We can't include all the responses we got, but here's a sampling:

Como Park Elementary - "Parents are partners in all aspects of our school. We are welcomed and encouraged to participate with the teachers and administration in a variety of ways. Como Park Elementary has an extremely active parent teacher organization. Our school also has an open door policy. If you are concerned, so are they. Together as partners, we are able to have our children excel." - Jocelin Hy, mother of three students at Como Park Elementary in Lancaster

- "Our principal is our fearless leader, a vocal advocate for our children, our families, our staff and our community! ... Her belief in what I do as a social worker and her diligent hard work to get me here full time only augments my sense of purpose, pride in our school, and gratitude to be a part of such a meaningful mission. She has created a true sense of community, and I am energized and excited to be a part of such an amazing team." - Mary Jo Gervase, social worker at Buffalo's Dr. George E. Blackman School 54

- "Staff give of their time after school hours providing club or athletic activities to keep students off the streets, additional academic assistance, and will often make home visits if needed. On weekends staff involve our students in community activities such as plays at local theaters, UB ball games and giving back to the community. Our students and staff have worked with Habitat For Humanity, the Central Terminal and Bob Lanier Center as well as assisting in the Fruit Belt Community freshening up neighborhood gardens." - Lori Hammond, principal, Stanley G. Falk School, Cambridge location (Falk School educates students with special learning, social and emotional needs)

Elmwood Franklin - "You are not able to walk the halls of Elmwood Franklin without knowing everyone that passes by. And the greatest thing about the 'family' community is that it is not just the faculty that knows the students. It is because of this comfort level and this familiarity that the children gain tremendous confidence in everything they do. This is how children should learn. The curriculum at Elmwood Franklin is great to be sure, but, really, it is not all about the curriculum. If you give your children the comfort level of home, while in school, this allows them to make mistakes, learn from those mistakes and try again without hesitation." - Donna Muscarella, parent of two children at Elmwood Franklin, Buffalo

- "Our school is the greatest because of the wonderful leadership of our principal, Mrs. Fran Paskowitz. She is a very loving, caring, giving and dedicated person who puts the best interest of all of her students and staff first." - Mary P. Mills, lead secretary, Hoover Elementary School, Ken-Ton

- "I have two children at Nichols (daughter in the upper school and son in the middle school). I think the think that makes the school great is the personal attention each teacher provides to their students. They follow them very closely and make sure they don't fall through the cracks!" - Diane DiTondo, parent, Nichols School in Buffalo

South Buffalo Charter SchoolFar and away, the school we heard about from the most readers was South Buffalo Charter School. Parents, teachers, students, administrators and a teacher assistant wrote in to share their thoughts on the school.

"We understand that success starts at home, continues at home, and ends at home. Because SBCS knows that we are just one component on each student’s path to success, we strive to increase parent and family involvement through events and activities throughout the year," wrote Liz Goss, a teacher at South Buffalo Charter School.

Mundorff note "Some of the highlights and favorites include a Fall Festival in the fall, a Holiday Gala in the winter, and a Family Literacy Night in the spring. Each event centers around both fun, family activities and bringing knowledge and academic support to our families. Throughout the year book fairs, classroom activities, and parent/teacher conferences (3 times a year) are held to bring parents and families into the building. Constant communication exists between parents and staff to ensure that all students are 'on the radar' and working to their highest potential."

A.J. Mundorff, a third-grader, wrote: "I like being a student at S.B.C.S. because it's fun to be here and the teachers care about us."

- Mary Pasciak

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Buy a latte, help a school

Want to do some holiday shopping and help out a local school -- all in one fell swoop?

Borders has announced that this weekend (Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 4 and 5), when you buy something -- anything -- in-store, you get a $15 gift card to donate to a participating public school of your choice. And if you buy the book "Waiting for 'Superman': How We Can Save America's Failing Public Schools," you get an additional $15 card to help a school.

Comics for classroom Here's how it works: Once you get the gift card, you go to, where you can browse through the projects that local teachers have posted. You can see a description of each project, an explanation of how it would help the students, and a breakdown of how the money will be spent. (You can also donate directly to the projects on the website, without shopping at Borders.)

A sampling of the local projects you can donate to:

- An English teacher at McKinley High School in Buffalo wants to buy an assortment of comic books to help get his students interested in reading. He writes: "One of the best tools I have found to turn non-readers into reader is the comic book. Simply put, students don't view comic books through the same lens as they do traditional books, and so they don't apply their negative opinions to them. Comics are 'easy' and 'interesting' in their minds."

- At Pine Hill Primary School teacher in Cheektowaga is hoping to buy a dollhouse and dolls (some white and some black) to help her students learn about families. "My students are generally low income families and have very little. Many of my students do not have the experience of playing with a doll of any type and using their imaginations to 'play together,'" she wrote. "It will be nice for them to be able to share experiences and realize who family members really are to us and the roles they play in our lives.

Classroom - At School 17 Early Childhood Center in Buffalo, a special ed teacher wants to buy an iPad to use some educational apps that will engage students. He'll be able to hook the iPad up to the classroom projector, so all the students benefit. "Three of the students in my class have autism, and three of my students are learning disabled," he wrote. "They are all excited about learning -- it's the matter of finding something new and exciting to capture their attention!"

- Photography students at Performing Arts in Buffalo would benefit from a digital camera that one teacher is hoping to purchase with donations. The school is trying to update its photography program to digital, but it needs some help.

"I am requesting a Nikon digital camera," the teacher wrote. "I have been pulling together cameras from different people who have donated or let me borrow them, and I have even purchased a couple myself, but we are still short. We are trying to get together at least enough cameras that half the class can use them at once, and then they can switch."

Plenty more worthy projects are detailed online at

- Mary Pasciak

E-mail me at or follow me on Follow  SchoolZoneBlog on Twitter Twitter.

Leftover turkey + squash + mashed potatoes = $5,000

Trying to figure out what to do with your leftover turkey, mashed potatoes, squash and cranberry sauce?

Stephen Petrotto might have the answer you're looking for.

Thanksgiving dinner And it could hold the key to his future.

Stephen, a student in the culinary skills program at Erie 1 BOCES, is a finalist in the Culinary Institute of America's Top Turkey Scholarship Recipe Competition. Like all the other applicants, he had to concoct a recipe all his own, using Thanksgiving leftovers, and submit it in the form of a video. (Jordan Warner, a senior from Cheektowaga Central, filmed the video for Stephen, who's a senior at Clarence High School.)

The videos from the nine finalists are posted on YouTube. The one with the most "likes" by Dec. 6 will win a $5,000 scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America.

So take a gander and see what you think of Stephen's croquette. (If you like what you see, go to his video on YouTube and give him a thumbs-up.)

(To see the other finalists' videos, go to

Enjoy your leftovers!

- Mary Pasciak

E-mail me at or follow me on Follow  SchoolZoneBlog on Twitter Twitter.

The trend toward co-ed dorm rooms

The University of Arizona is considering offering students the option of sharing a dorm room with a member of the opposite sex, KVOA reports.

The plan under consideration would affect five of the university's dorms.

Already, about 50 colleges and universities across the country offer co-ed dorm rooms, including Stanford, Berkeley, Cornell, Dartmouth, Wesleyan and the University of Michigan.

Dorm room The Sacramento Bee reported this summer:

"My main reason for choosing gender-neutral housing was simply feeling more comfortable with a guy as a roommate," Kendall Jones, 20, wrote in an e-mail interview with The Bee.

"Jones grew up with three brothers and said she was fed up with female energy after a freshman year in which she was one of three girls squeezed into a room built for two.

"It made me cringe to think about living with a girl the next year, so when I found out there was another option I jumped at the chance," she wrote.

Jones chose to live with her friend James Case. He said they were compatible because they have similar lifestyles and the same tolerance for mess. There was nothing awkward about it, Case said.

"When one of us would change, you'd say, 'Hey turn around for 10 seconds.' It really wasn't complicated," he said.

"College housing officials say mixed housing hasn't led to increases in sexual violence. Most schools limit mixed-gender rooms to specific buildings or floors. They assign students to mixed rooms only when both people request it."

- Mary Pasciak

E-mail me at or follow me on Follow  SchoolZoneBlog on Twitter Twitter.

Cosmetic surgery benefit catches attention of feds

We reported not long ago that Fox News was paying attention to recent stories about the marked increase in usage of the cosmetic surgery benefit by Buffalo Public Schools employees.

The folks at Fox apparently weren’t the only ones paying attention.

Jacobs The local FBI office seems to have read those stories, too. A local agent recently contacted Christopher Jacobs, the Board of Education member who’s been raising questions about the more than $8 million the district spent on the benefit last year. Last week, Jacobs said, he talked with the agent.

"I think they're concerned about fraud," Jacobs said. "They're looking at issues of the significant increase in revenues generated by certain doctors and the increase in the unit cost, but I also think the increase in usage is an area they're probably going to look into."

The FBI will not comment, and several key people involved with the issue –- including the president of the teachers union and the doctor who billed the district more than $4 million last year -– said they have not been contacted by the FBI, and they know nothing about the FBI’s interest in the situation.

Kulwant Bhangoo “I’m not concerned –- I haven’t done anything wrong,” said Dr. Kulwant Bhangoo, who billed the district for more in cosmetic surgery procedures than any other doctor last year. “All we did was provide the services to the valued members of the community, which were authorized and carefully monitored by the insurance company. We were reimbursed according to the rates set by the insurance company.”

How was he able to bill so much in a single year? In 2009, his practice had five locations. Many of the non-invasive skin procedures were done by "aestheticians," who have 600 hours of training. And the insurance company did not require a physician to be on site when the procedure was done, he said.

Since then, BlueCross/BlueShield has changed its requirements. Now, a physician's assistant or nurse practitioner must perform the procedures, Bhangoo said. The $4.3 million he billed for Buffalo Public Schools employees last year was entirely legal and within the rules set by the insurance company, he said.

"It wasn't because we were charging more [for each procedure]," he said. "That's not the case. It's more because more people are wanting the procedures. Patients today want instant results you can get with Botox. People can go in and have these treatments done during their lunch break and then carry on with the rest of their day."

The Buffalo Teachers Federation contract -- signed in 1999 and expired in 2004 -- provides "cosmetic surgery which is required and necessary as determined by the insured's physician" for teachers and their dependents who are covered under the traditional BlueCross/BlueShield plan, which is one of the plans available to them.

About 4,300 district employees and retirees -- half of those insured through the district -- opt for the traditional coverage. Employees and retirees do not pay anything out of pocket toward the premiums, according to district and union officials. Philip Rumore, president of the teachers union, says he will give up the benefit when a new contract is negotiated.

- Mary Pasciak

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Tweet your way to a college scholarship

Kentucky Fried Chicken has put a new twist on college scholarships: Tweet your application.

High school seniors have until Friday to make their case, in 140 characters or less, as to why they deserve to win $20,000 over four years to help pay for college.

Every year, KFC gives out 75 scholarships. This is the first time one student will win by putting his or her best tweet forward.

Twitter What do applicants have to do? Basically, tweet "why they exemplify Colonel Sanders' commitment to education and enriching their communities and why they are deserving of a college scholarship." And include #KFCScholar in the tweet.

Some of the recent entries:

From Tai Rattigan: "I want to be a #KFCScholar, I will personally eat KFC at least once a week for life, you can document it ;) Sanders is my idol"

From Leah Tibbets: "I deserve the Scholarship b/c I worked so hard to graduate 1yr early from HS. I need this scholarship b/c it's my only chance!"

From Timothy W. Lee: "1 mom, 1 goal: college, 1 dream: teacher, 1 passion: saving lost kids near & far, 225: hrs of comm service, changing the future"

And from Lauren Bruer: "My parents spent my college savings on popcorn chicken. It wouldn't kill you to return the favor. #KFCScholar"

The winner will be announced Dec. 1.

- Mary Pasciak

E-mail me at or follow me on Follow  SchoolZoneBlog on Twitter Twitter.

What makes your school great?

A few years ago, I did a series for The News that looked at elementary schools in the region that were doing the best job getting kids to do well on the state tests, taking into consideration the percentage of students in poverty.

Puzzle The following year, I did a series looking at middle schools in the same way.

I had the privilege of spending a few hours at each of the nine elementary and five middle schools I profiled for those series as the schools doing the best job helping their students achieve. I learned a whole lot about what makes a school good by spending time in those buildings -- observing teachers in their classrooms, watching principals in action, talking to kids -- in the suburbs, in urban settings, and in rural areas.

Years later, one thing remains ingrained in my memory: Almost without exception, the principals in those schools stationed themselves near the front door of the school every morning, greeting children and parents by name as they came into the building. One principal after another emphasized to me the importance of troubleshooting from the very first minutes of the day -- if you recognize a potential problem right away, you can prevent the explosion.

The principals in each of those schools knew just about all their students by name -- and they knew which girl's father just lost his job, and which boy's father just started chemo treatments, and which kid comes to school exhausted because he spends the evenings taking care of younger siblings while his mother works a second job.

Those principals spent most of their time out in the building, talking to people, trouble-shooting, and problem-solving. They did not spend much time sitting at a desk in the office.

That's just one observation that cropped up, time and time again, as I visited the schools that dealt effectively with the challenges facing their students. It comes to mind often when I hear the latest debate on school reform, or read the latest study on the elements of effective schools.

We're always hearing from national experts about what they think makes for a good school. But I don't think we get to hear enough from the real experts -- those of you who are in the schools every day.

So here's your chance.

What makes your school great?

If you're a teacher, a parent, a principal, an aide, a student -- anybody who's intimately involved in a school -- we want to hear from you.

E-mail me at, and share one factor, large or small, that contributes to the success of your school. Please remember to provide the name of the school, so we can give credit where it's due. We'll print some of the most interesting responses here at the School Zone blog next week.

- Mary Pasciak

E-mail me at or follow me on Follow  SchoolZoneBlog on Twitter Twitter.

Should Buffalo teachers have to live in Buffalo?

A New York State Supreme Court justice last month ordered a teacher and a guidance counselor reinstated to their jobs, with about a year of backpay dating back to when they were fired for allegedly living outside the Falls. Implementation of the district's residency, the judge ruled, is so flawed that it's "unenforceable, incomplete ... arbitrary and capricious."

As the case works its way through the appeals process, Buffalo Board of Education members are paying close attention. Buffalo teachers currently are required to live in the city, unless they teach in a "high-need" area, such as special education.

Brendan Kelleher, general counsel for the Buffalo schools, says Buffalo should keep an eye on the Falls residency case -- but adds that it's too early to draw any conclusions about the case's implications for the Queen City. Still, at a committee meeting Wednesday evening, a number of Buffalo board members said they think it's time to take a good look at the city's residency policy, which is set by the board (not negotiated with the union as part of the teachers contract).

Ralph Hernandez "My preference would be to repeal the residency rule altogether. Last thing we need is barriers for hiring the best people we possibly can," said board president Ralph Hernandez, who has advocated before for axing the policy.

"I know the city has a concern in regard to property tax revenues. In my view, that’s not the responsibility of the board, to grow the city’s tax base. Our responsibility is to make sure we have the best education system possible, and that includes hiring the best personnel possible."

Superintendent James A. Williams agrees with Hernandez.

"I think people should be allowed to live wherever they want and work in the system," Williams said. "It gives us a larger pool (of potential employees). Right now we are restricted. If you don’t live in the city, in six months, we terminate you."

Lou Petrucci Board member Lou Petrucci says it's time to revisit the issue, but adds that he wants to see the residency rule stay in effect -- ideally, alongside some sort of financial incentive offered by the city, as it once did, such as cash toward a downpayment on a house in Buffalo. And, he says, particular situations might warrant some flexibility on the district's part, such as in the case of a married couple where each spouse teaches in a different district, with each one requiring residency.

"But I would love to have teachers who live in the city who can relate to kids in the city," Petrucci said. "I think it adds value, and I think it makes for a better district."

- Mary Pasciak

E-mail me at or follow me on Follow  SchoolZoneBlog on Twitter Twitter.

Meet Lawrence Martinez, ex-administrator who got more than $200,000 last year

Retired Niagara Falls administrator Lawrence Martinez made The News recently when we reported that he was the second-highest paid public school employee in Erie and Niagara counties last year.

Although his annual salary was about $117,000, a one-time buyback of unused sick days pushed his gross pay to $223,437 -- even more than Buffalo Superintendent James A. Williams received in 2009-10.  Lawrence Martinez

Martinez, who now lives in Arizona, could not be reached to comment for that story. But he was gracious enough to call and talk with us this week, about everything from his long and celebrated career in education to the six-figure check that pushed him into the region's list of best-paid educators.

"I think I had a rather distinguished career," he said. "I was in education for 42 years. When someone says 'just an elementary principal,' I was more than that. I held every postion in Niagara Falls except superintendent and deputy superintendent."

Martinez started out as an elementary school teacher, making $6,800 a year. After a few years, he became math coordinator for the district, then technology coordinator and audiovisual coordinator. His other administrative positions included working with curriculum for math and science; overseeing grants; working as vice principal at the middle school and high school levels; and working as an elementary school principal. When he retired in June, he was serving as principal of Hyde Park Elementary School.

He was good at what he did, he says. For instance, when he oversaw grants for Niagara Falls, grants doubled, to $24 million. Over the years, he received four national awards, including one that recognized him as one of the 200 best computer educators in the country. That award brought $250,000 to the district, which Niagara Falls used to set up one of the first computer labs in the region, Martinez said.

"I think if you ask educators around, they'll tell you Larry Martinez had a hell of a career in Niagara Falls, N.Y.," he said.

When Martinez retired, he had accumulated 650 unused sick days.

"How does that benefit the district? They never had to use subs for me," he said. "More importantly, because I had good health, I was able to maintain continuity in my classroom. That benefited everybody."

The district lets employees cash in their unused time, but caps it at 300 sick days. He got a check for about $104,000 for that sick time he never used, he said.

"If you spread that out over all the years I worked, that would be about $2,600 added onto my salary each year," he said.

Martinez says he realizes that in an era when many people in the private sector have lost their pensions entirely, many people get upset when they read about people in the public sector getting a big check at the end of their career for unused sick time. But money was not what motivated him to pursue a career in education, he said.

"I don't think there was an educator out there who thought they would get rich doing this," he said. "There were times we gave up 1 percent, 2 percent, 3 percent raises a year. In exchange, they'd say, 'We'll increase the number of sick days you can turn in at the end of the year.'

"I really didn't beat a system. I went along with what a system negotiated for us."

- Mary Pasciak

E-mail me at or follow me on Follow  SchoolZoneBlog on Twitter Twitter.

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About School Zone

Denise Jewell Gee

Denise Jewell Gee

Denise Jewell Gee joined The Buffalo News in 2007 and currently covers education and suburban schools. She also writes a column for the City & Region section and previously covered government in Erie County and Niagara Falls. Gee graduated from Boston University with degrees in journalism and political science.

@denisejewellgee |

Tiffany Lankes

Tiffany Lankes

Tiffany Lankes joined The Buffalo News in 2013 and primarily covers the Buffalo Public Schools. She has written about education since 2003 at newspapers in Florida and New York. In 2008, she was a nominated finalist for The Pulitzer Prize. Lankes is an Amherst native and graduate of Sacred Heart Academy and Syracuse University. She started her journalism career writing for the News’ NeXt section.

@TiffanyLankes |

Sandra Tan

Sandra Tan

Sandra Tan has been a cityside reporter for The Buffalo News since 2000 and currently covers the Buffalo Public Schools beat. She previously covered the Williamsville school district and was a full-time education reporter for five years prior to joining The News. She graduated from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

@BNschoolzone |

Deidre Williams

Deidre Williams

Deidre Williams began working for The Buffalo News in 1999 and currently covers Buffalo Public Schools. She formerly was a suburban reporter on the Northtowns beat and has been a cityside reporter covering communities since 2004. Williams has a mass communications degree from Towson University.

@DeidreWilliamsB |