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Editorial: State stats demonstrate welcome improvement in Buffalo schools

Buffalo Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash held a sort of pep rally last week to announce some news worth celebrating: The Buffalo Public Schools are making measurable progress. More than twice as many schools are in good standing with the state compared to three years ago, and the number in receivership has fallen to just three.

The data Cash publicized is from the State Education Department’s annual review of school accountability. The state says 37 of 50 schools in the district are now in “good standing,” up from 15 schools during the 2015-16 school year.

Schools are put in receivership, with the threat of closure or being taken over by the state, if they are among the bottom 5 percent in the state for three straight years. The number of schools in Buffalo fitting that criteria was 25 in the 2015-16 school year. Next year, only Harvey Austin School, Marva J. Daniels Futures Preparatory School and School 131 Academy School will be on the list.

There is an asterisk here, but that doesn’t negate the good news.

The state Education Department this year made changes in the accountability rating rubric. Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, passed in 2015, states have leeway to figure out which schools are underperforming and how to support those that are falling short.

The new accountability system takes into consideration not only academic achievement, but student progress, chronic absenteeism, English language proficiency and college and career readiness.

It isn’t clear how much the change in accountability systems contributed to the rising status of the Buffalo district. But even if the goal posts have moved a bit, the Buffalo Public Schools are putting points on the scoreboard.

“We have a new narrative,” Cash told an audience of students, principals, School Board members and state and city officials. Buffalo’s schools have “turned around.”

The turning around is a work in progress, but progress is the key. Last July the Board of Education voted to give Cash a “B” grade, citing his focus on classroom results and his outreach skills.

Samuel L. Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council, gave Cash an “A” grade, saying Cash was the best superintendent Buffalo has had since at least 1990.

A district serving as many poor families as Buffalo’s is constantly fighting uphill battles, including student discipline issues. A freshman student at McKinley High School was arrested earlier this month and charged with felony assault after a teacher was body-slammed at the school.

And an uptick in graduation rates does not always reflect that students are prepared for life after high school.

A statewide group called the New York Equity Coalition last year released a survey showing that only one in three recent high school graduates in New York State felt “significantly challenged” by their high school courses. And nearly half of those who went to college reported having to take at least one remedial course.

Community colleges and even four-year colleges routinely deal with new students who cannot read at grade level, or perform simple math problems, forcing the schools to spend time and resources on remedial training. That’s disgraceful. Certainly, it’s important for the district’s weakest schools to perform better. Undeniably, that’s a measure of progress. But it also must ensure the students they graduate have actually learned something. Otherwise, we’re all kidding ourselves.

The next two years could be tumultuous ones in the Buffalo Public Schools. All nine seats on the school board are up for election in 2019. Cash’s contract runs through August 2020, and the board will decide whether to offer him an extension. There will be two more years of state accountability data to parse by then, and any decision on extending Cash can wait, but this year’s state statistics are promising.

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