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The small Walden Avenue school on the East Side sits in one of Buffalo’s poorest neighborhoods.

In a city struggling to educate kids like these, it might be the last place you’d expect to find robotics.

Instead, it’s one of the few that’ll be sending a team to Saturday’s FIRST robotics competition at Buffalo Academy of Science Charter School.

The team from Our Lady of Hope Home School is one of just five – including the host – competing in the local For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology showdown to see whose small robot can perform best. The winner moves on to a regional championship next month in Rochester.

Building a robot from Lego pieces and programming it to perform prescribed tasks on a game board is not the kind of thing that shows up on a Regents exam or in standardized test scores, but that doesn’t mean it’s not educational.

“It’s probably the single most important academic thing we do here at the mission … because the kids are starting to see it can lead to jobs,” said attorney Mike Taheri, director of the school that’s part of St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy. “This is the international language. It should be a requirement in every school.”

Yet only five area teams – including ones from Williamsville, Newfane, and Oakfield-Alabama in Genesee County – are competing.

The OLH kids have been preparing two evenings a week, and the school plans to add a robotics component to its curriculum in January. The small, independent school of a few dozen students – getting by largely on donations and tutoring by retired educators – can do things like that. And its success in sending graduates to elite Catholic high schools and colleges speaks to the efficacy of its approach – and to its belief that all kids can learn.

The learning is apparent as the kids prepare for a competition centered on dealing with a natural disaster. One task is to remove the branch from a Lego tree without touching the power lines below. “So I’m just trying to make a mechanism that will grab it and take it away. … It’s kind of challenging,” says eighth-grader Joe Marciniak, 13, as he programs and reprograms the robot.

The competition teaches kids to think analytically, said Erik Taheri, the director’s son, who, with fellow Canisius College computer science major Dan O’Donnell and Moog engineer James Clark, mentors the students.

“It’s like a puzzle,” seventh-grader Cameron Sniatecki says as he tinkers with speed and duration while programming. “You’ve just got to know what the programs do, then place one after another. … It’s actually pretty easy.”

Don’t tell that to Joe, who Taheri says has “been trying to get this tree thing to work for three days.”

Win or lose Saturday, the kids are undaunted by the challenge. They’re also thoroughly engrossed.

“Engineering is what I want to go to college for,” said sixth-grader John Paul Erckert. “And when I heard there were Legos involved, it was, like, awesome!”

How do you measure that? For those of us who believe in testing to hold schools accountable, it’s a cautionary tale about the breadth of real education.

The OLH robotics adventure is also a cautionary tale for teachers who would look at a kid’s socioeconomic background to decide what he or she is capable of.

email: rwatson@buffnews.com