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Preliminary figures show schools making desperately needed advances

The State Education Department delivered what looks an awful lot like good news to the Buffalo School District this week: According to unaudited figures, its graduation rate reached 56 percent – the highest since 2010, when graduation rates were inflated after some struggling students were held back from entering high school.

While the audited figures, expected in September, could make a difference, the initial figures match the projection made last year by former Superintendent Pamela C. Brown, who resigned under pressure earlier this month.

It’s possible, and maybe even likely, that the rate will be eroded by audits of at least two schools and possibly others. Deputy State Education Commissioner Ken Slentz was clear in his unease with the numbers, noting, “The preliminary findings show some concerns.”

Buffalo residents and all Western New Yorkers have to hope the figures stand up, because they would show a dramatic improvement of 8 percentage points from the previous year’s graduation rate – a greater increase than any of the state’s other Big Five districts – and show that Buffalo is on the right track.

If the figures hold up, then Brown is due a large share of the credit. Among her strategies was to implement a “credit recovery program” in which students were provided extra help in mastering specific skills they need to pass the Regents exams, in some cases without having to retake entire courses.

Also contributing significantly to improvements were the efforts of Say Yes to Education, the nonprofit organization that has partnered with the school district and guarantees a college education for all who graduate. Earlier this year, the National Student Clearinghouse reported that 66 percent of 2013’s graduating seniors enrolled in college last fall, the highest percentage in at least seven years.

Still, there are problems. Graduation rates at six schools were below 50 percent and three of those were below 35 percent. Those are terrible numbers, even though each posted gains over last year. Again, audits may result in changes.

At East High School, for example, the 2013 graduation rate rose to 48.9 percent from the previous year’s 27.8 percent, causing the state to ask for more proof that students who were originally part of the class of 2013 but left before graduation actually transferred to other schools and didn’t simply drop out. That could lower the graduation rate notably.

Other nagging issues including the racial disparity of graduation rates – a problem seen across the state – and the fact that graduation rates may reflect nothing more than meeting minimum requirements, which don’t necessarily prepare students for the rigors of college or careers.

Regardless of what the state’s audits conclude, there remains a long road ahead, one with real challenges for a poor city with large numbers of special education students and non-English speaking students. Still, any improvement is a hopeful sign. A turnaround has to begin somewhere. We can all hope that the hopeful sign is real.