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Bump in high school graduation rate is good news for students and the city

With only an asterisk or two, the news that Buffalo Public Schools’ graduation rate rose to 61 percent for the Class of 2015 marks some of the best news to come out of the district in years.

Increasing the graduation rate, after all, has been the goal of just about everyone with an interest in Buffalo or its school district. The figures, reported by the State Education Department, mark the first time Buffalo has cracked the 60 percent mark in graduation rates in a decade.

The importance of improving the graduation rate can hardly be overstated. First and foremost, it relates to the quality of life those students may achieve over the remaining decades of their lives. By virtue of the state Constitution, New Yorkers owe these students a “sound, basic education” – and too many of them are not getting it.

It also affects the success of communities, as successful students create tax revenue and raise children with high expectations. And the quality of education, represented in part by graduation rates, affects the decision of families to settle in any given municipality. While Buffalo is suddenly booming, a lot of that growth is due to millennials and empty-nesters moving into the city. Buffalo could become vastly more attractive to families with children if it had a school system understood to be effective.

The asterisks: Will the numbers hold up, and are the graduates actually prepared for what comes next? Both are hard-won concerns.

Last month, the principal at East High School was placed on administrative leave while the district reviews the accuracy of the school’s graduation data. Both Superintendent Kriner Cash and leaders of the State Education Department have expressed concern about the numbers, though no one has concluded that they are inaccurate. Still, at least some degree of caution seems warranted.

The other sad fact is that graduation from high school does not always translate to readiness for the future. Erie Community College President Jack Quinn has consistently bemoaned the amount of remedial work that ECC’s freshmen require to bring them up to a basic level of competence. If Buffalo, or any other school district, is graduating seniors who are unprepared for work or college, it is still falling far short of its obligations.

Nevertheless, there are reasons to have some level of confidence in the numbers. Cash observed that they are in part the product of a strategic effort to identify and help students at risk of dropping out. For the school year in question, the district – then under the leadership of Interim Superintendent Donald A. Ogilvie – created alternative programs to help students who are behind to earn the credits needed to graduate. Due at least in part to that effort, 10 of the district’s 16 high schools saw their performances improve.

It may be going after the low-hanging fruit, but what better place could there be to start? If offering help to those who are within reach of graduating can make such a significant difference – 61 percent of students graduating versus last year’s 56 percent – it would be irresponsible not to make that effort.

Of course, that leaves the rest of the tree to harvest, and some of the fruit will be harder to reach: students for whom English is a second language; students whose home life is chaotic; students who lack interest in securing the chance for a better future by focusing now.

This is everyone’s work, including administrators, teachers, parents, students and – not insignificantly – the taxpayers whose dollars pay for public education. They have a right to expect quality. These graduation figures show something good may be happening.