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Gains at four struggling city schools need to be duplicated across the district

It’s not often that Buffalo gets good news about its struggling school district, but it got a dose of it this week: Four of the district’s troubled schools have improved enough for the state to push them into the ranks of schools in good standing. Something in those schools is being done right.

The improved schools are Stanley Makowski Early Childhood Center 99, Grabiarz School of Excellence 79, Roosevelt Early Childhood Center 65 and Houghton Academy 69. The reasons are almost certainly complex, but clearly include the performance of school faculty and principals. Other influences, including those of previous superintendents, may also play a part.

It’s important not to just accept these improvements as the good news it truly is. Those factors that went into it need to be analyzed and, as much as possible, transposed onto the district’s other weak schools.

Indeed, the district should already have been doing this by examining the performances of other urban schools and districts that are doing a better job of educating their students than Buffalo is. Those examples are out there and there can be no doubt that at least some of what they are doing can be duplicated here.

However, it’s not all good news for Buffalo’s schools. Two other schools were downgraded by the state. Lorraine Elementary School and Hillery Park Academy 27 are now considered “focus schools,” which is still a step above the lowest level of “priority.” In all, only 15 of the city’s 56 schools are performing well enough to avoid intervention by the state.

And, of course, it’s not as though the four improved schools lack room for further improvement. At Makowski, for example, test scores show proficiency rose from 4 percent to 11 percent in English, and 3 percent to 13 percent in math. “We know we have a long way to go, but I’m all about growth,” said Makowski Principal William Boatwright.

That is exactly the right approach. The problems in Buffalo’s schools have festered for years and they won’t be fixed overnight. It will take time and consistent, focused effort. Time is of the essence, of course, with thousands of students being robbed of a quality education every year, but progress is important.

Also useful is the state’s plan to straighten out its confusing and sometimes unfair ranking system. Some critics say the existing system financially punishes struggling districts in which more schools are improving than failing.

The problem is that “focus districts” such as Buffalo get more federal money from the state, but those districts need to maintain a certain percentage of “focus” schools to retain that financial help. Thus, to ensure the district continued to receive the higher level of funding, it could not move any focus schools into good standing – even if the schools merited the change – without demoting an equal number of schools already in good standing down to “focus school” status.

It’s a system crying out for change, and the state is planning to pursue that. In January, it is expected to drop the swapping requirement.

Still, the focus needs to be on improving the schools. Four schools did that this year. They need to continue that trend and the district’s other troubled schools need to apply those lessons to their own programs.