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Buffalo’s low graduation rates called a community issue

It’s a community problem. Community and school district leaders said Wednesday that everyone needs to take responsibility for the Buffalo Public Schools’ abysmal and falling graduation rates at many of its underperforming high schools.

“I think it’s timeout for the blame game,” said the Rev. Darius Pridgen, pastor of True Bethel Baptist Church. “Actually, we should be ashamed of the silence that has permeated in our community over what I feel is a state of emergency.”

He and other district leaders pointed to poverty as the biggest driver of the district’s low numbers, and the biggest reason so little is being said about the low rates.

“If these same results happened in Clarence Center or Orchard Park, the entire community would come together to protect their children,” he said, “but that is not happening right now in a concerted way to move our graduation rates upward so that our students have just as much of a chance as every other student in Western New York.”

District leaders attending committee meetings Wednesday didn’t characterize the district’s poor graduation rates in the same alarming terms as Pridgen. But they did express disappointment after the state released the district’s 47 percent graduation rate for 2012 and highlighted Buffalo as having the biggest rate decline of any of the Big 5 school districts in the state.

Board member John Licata called it a dubious honor to not rank dead last in the graduation rate rankings. That distinction goes to Rochester, which had a 43 percent graduation rate.

Licata said the state has continued to raise the bar for education without providing the funding necessary to ensure student success. He also said the district needs to continue to provide more early intervention opportunities for high school kids in danger of failing.

Veteran board member Ralph Hernandez, meanwhile, said the numbers should be a concern for everyone.

“Everyone is responsible for those,” said Hernandez. “To stand back and say, ‘Whoa, you’ve got a 47 percent’ – it’s ‘No, we’ve got 47 percent.’ I think we should all take responsibility for those numbers.”

Among the 20 city public and charter high schools, only four showed any gains, while nine showed losses of 5 percentage points or more compared with 2011’s rates.

Since 2010, six of the city schools have seen double-digit declines in graduation rates.

Pridgen said he is calling for a July meeting of more than 100 area pastors and the superintendent to find ways of keeping 53 percent of Buffalo high school students from failing to graduate on time, or at all.

“If 53 percent of the youth were being gunned down on the street, we’d call it a state of emergency,” he said. “If 53 percent of the kids had STDs, we’d call it a state of emergency. If 53 percent of students are not graduating on time or not graduating at all, and this is not a state of emergency, then I don’t know what is.”

Hernandez, meanwhile, expressed skepticism that such a meeting will lead to more than talk. He referred to a series of meetings in the spring of 2011 when elected leaders, education reform groups, foundations, parents and other stakeholders came together to rally for better results for city students.

“They all took a photo-op, then they all disappeared,” he said.

Board member Sharon Belton Cottman said the board has known about the 47 percent graduation rate since last year. That made the district’s decision not to offer summer school last year even more distressing, she said.

Summer school is being offered this year, and school administrators are making more of a push to get children signed up.

Samuel Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council, said he is optimistic that the city graduation rates are bound to improve because of the district’s partnership with Say Yes to Education.

The Say Yes program not only provides college scholarships to graduating high school students, but also provides wraparound services and detailed student monitoring to ensure that more students graduate and qualify for a college education.

The student support services are being phased in at all Buffalo schools over the next few years.

“I think the solution is already in the district,” Radford said.

“I think Say Yes to Education is giving hope to our children,” he said.

Superintendent Pamela Brown said that since she arrived a year ago she has instituted a number of strategies designed to bring city graduation rates up to 80 percent by 2018.

These include Say Yes collaboration, professional development, using student data to drive better early intervention strategies, and more after school and summer school programs to help struggling students.

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