Rod Watson. Buffalo News. 2/27/2003.


As horror films go, this one falls into the category of slasher flick.

But there's no blood on the floor or hacked-off limbs.

The cuts are to Buffalo's schools, and the victims are real-life eighth-graders.

That's right, eighth-graders. You know, the kids the Pataki administration must feel should be ready to get a job because the state constitution only mandates that they be provided an eighth-grade education.

They're the stars of "The Terror of Education," a 30-minute video about 350 Buffalo and Lackawanna students will take to Albany on Tuesday when they try to make the point that "eighth grade is not enough."

Of course it's not. I presume even the governor knows that.

But the film makes good use of one of the dumbest statements since the Reagan administration called ketchup a vegetable. The infamous comment came after Gov. George E. Pataki heartlessly appealed a court ruling that said the state's school funding formula is unfair to poor districts. One of his experts exposed the administration's mind-set by telling the court the state is required to provide only the equivalent of grammar school learning.

The governor has verbally disavowed that. But his proposed $1.24 billion cut in school funding is the defining statement of how he really feels about education for the have-nots.

Adult activists already have protested in Albany. But they can't be as effective as the Kensington High School students who'll talk Tuesday about the loss of the Teachers for Tomorrow program that had provided internships so they could see if they'd like to pursue teaching as a career.

Adults can't be as sincere as the eighth-grader at Bennett Park Montessori who looks into the camera and says, "I can't be what I want to be without a good education."

"Many of them have already given up hope with the (Regents) standards being raised," said Solar J. Ingram, who volunteered to make the tape along with videographer Doug Ruffin.

Ingram said the recent and proposed cuts have left many students feeling: "You haven't made a place for me; as a matter of fact, you're taking it away."

That's a dangerous attitude. But maybe the governor really is creating a monster.

Tuesday's trek to Albany will include more than 1,000 kids and their teachers from around the state. It's being organized by the Alliance for Quality Education, a statewide coalition that includes groups like Citizen Action.

Depending on how much lawmakers restore to the education budget, the exercise could leave kids with the feeling that "the system" also belongs to them and that they can make it work. It could leave them convinced that sheer numbers of committed people can offset the impact of big checkbooks.

How do we sell young people on the idea that they can take control? The same way we sell them on overpriced sneakers and team jerseys - by speaking to them in the language they're receptive to.

Ingram has been doing that for years in a forum she calls Hip Hop 101, using modern music and its stars as an entree to discussions about serious issues with teens in community centers around Buffalo and as far away as Rochester and Atlanta.

In fact, it's noteworthy that next week's protest is being planned as New York City activists celebrate "Turn Off the Radio Day" today. It's a reaction to those conglomerate-controlled stations that feed urban teens only the most destructive forms of hip-hop, while refusing to play artists who use the genre to promote self-help and other empowering messages.

Ingram, the twentysomething mother of a Buffalo student, sees the power in the medium and is not about to let it go to waste on frivolous or destructive stuff.

"Music is a way to get them interested in understanding what the issues are," she said, "because it's spoken to them in a language they understand."

It's a language not all adults can decipher. But once kids understand the school funding ramifications, and the impact they can have if they unify and speak out, who knows what other issues they might take on? Who knows how socially and politically active they might become as they grow into aware, involved adults?

Of course, that's probably a horrifying thought to some people. In fact, it's probably enough to make some people wish these kids would stop at eighth grade.