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Editorial: Jump in Buffalo’s graduation rate is praiseworthy, but harder work awaits

Buffalo, and New York State as a whole, are doing a better job of graduating their high school students on time – much better, if the statistics are accurate. The improvement reported for Buffalo last week is nothing less than startling and credit must go to many people. Prominent among them are New York Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Buffalo School Superintendent Kriner Cash.

For a city where the graduation rate was below 50 percent not so long ago, the report that nearly two-thirds of seniors graduated in 2016 is heartening and, in some ways, remarkable. But, make no mistake: While this is an important and necessary achievement, what Buffalo has done is to set the table for the even harder work that awaits.

Consider the change. In 2012, the Buffalo School District’s graduation rate was an embarrassing 48 percent. Four years later, the figure stands at 64 percent. That’s an increase of 16 percentage points, or an increase of one-third. That’s significant and the improvement is mirrored in districts around the state, including big ones such as Rochester and Syracuse.

Much of the change was achieved by focusing on the “low-hanging fruit” – that is, the students who needed just a little extra effort to meet the requirements of graduation. That was the obvious place to start, of course. It quickly helps a large number of students and produces a notable increase in the graduation rate.

But it is, in a way, akin to the pattern of many other challenges, such as budgeting or weight loss. By eliminating foolish spending or cutting out junk food, rapid results are possible. After that, the work requires more focus.

So it is with improving student performance. Among the hurdles that remain are helping students with little or no support at home. The district’s large enrollment of immigrants and other non-English speaking students poses a different challenge. Students who create disruptions cause problems for themselves and their peers.

Teacher absenteeism is a problem in Buffalo, as well. That affects children’s ability to learn. So does the difficult relationship between the district and the Buffalo Teachers Federation. They recently concluded a new contract, but the deal did little to move the needle on issues that could directly improve education, including sufficiently longer school days and school years and the ability to assign teachers to schools where their talents can have the greatest impact.

All of these, and other issues, need to be addressed if the district is to maximize its graduation rate. And, to be clear, it’s not just numbers at issue. The point is to improve the prospects of individuals, creating the possibility of more productive and rewarding lives for students who might otherwise languish in poverty. What is worse in life than a failure to thrive?

In truth, the district cannot do this work alone. Help is needed from other sources, and it is there. In particular, Say Yes to Education has waded into the Buffalo school system, providing new resources and guaranteeing college tuition to all students who graduate. M&T Bank has been helping Buffalo students for years. Other partners are also showing up. SolarCity, for example, plans to work with South Park High School, helping to prepare students for careers in the emerging high-tech field of solar energy. And Cash is planning to beat the bushes for other assistance.

These improvements are critical not only to students, but to Buffalo’s hopes of building on its economic momentum. The city needs young families to sustain its revival, and that requires confidence in the quality of education their children will receive.

The improved graduation rate makes for a solid down payment on that goal. Next up is Cash’s stated target of improving the graduation rate to 70 percent with the Class of 2019. It will be a bigger challenge than what has been accomplished thus far, but the district has momentum. It dares not squander it.

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