Buffalo Public Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash this month said he would be agreeable to serving another three years after his contract expires in August 2020. In truth, that decision isn’t likely to be made until after the School Board elections in May, but it’s something the board needs to get done. Today wouldn’t be too soon.
Measurable gains can seem frustratingly slow in the city’s schools, but progress is there. It’s more evolution than revolution, but it should not be taken for granted.
Statistics released Wednesday by the State Education Department showed high school graduation rates across the Buffalo district held firm in 2017-18, at 64.5 percent. The rate was 63.8 percent for each of the graduating classes of 2016 and 2017.
In 2012, Buffalo’s graduation rate was a distressing 48 percent. Cash has made it his goal to reach 70 percent, as part of his New Education Bargain agenda.
“The data is not surprising to me,” Cash told The News on Wednesday. “It’s very difficult to move the graduation needle in a large, complex urban district four or five points at a time.”
When Cash took the job in 2015, he began with a “low-hanging fruit” approach to graduation rates, giving a boost to students who were close to meeting the requirements, but needed a push to get there. That yielded results, but once some of the easiest obstacles are removed, the rest are – by definition – tougher to overcome.
They will take some time, in part because much of Cash’s agenda is focused on students in grades below high school, when the basics are taught that make high school success possible. It will take a few years for the gains from younger students to translate into higher graduation numbers.
There were bright spots in the state graduation report. The percentage of students classified as English language learners who received their diplomas jumped to 38.5 percent last year, up from 24.2 percent three years ago. That’s a sizable jump for a district with a large influx of immigrants and in which some 80 languages are spoken, and a real credit to the teachers of those students.
Graduation rates for students with disabilities rose to 43.3 percent last year, up from 37.8 percent three years ago. That was the largest gain among the Big 5 urban school districts in the state.
A troubling trend that continues is the graduation gap among racial lines. In Buffalo, 75 percent of white students graduated last year, compared to 60 percent of black students and 50 percent of Hispanics. Those gaps are the widest in New York State. Various factors influence those numbers, including poverty levels, but other cities seem to be making more progress in addressing the disparities. Buffalo needs to study their approaches and find what works.
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia on Wednesday acknowledged that the racial disparities are a concern in Buffalo, but stressed the progress made over the past five years in the city’s graduation rates. She cited My Brother’s Keeper, a program funded with federal and state money that provides mentors to young men and boys of color.
“I think you’re seeing some focus on those students that really need to have the opportunity to learn provided to them,” Elia said.
One of the partners in My Brother’s Keeper is Say Yes to Education Buffalo, the nonprofit that provides numerous services to the district and is a key cog in Cash’s New Education Bargain.
David Rust, executive director of Say Yes, is a champion of Cash and his value to the district.
“Leadership matters,” Rust said this month, “and it’s so fortunate to have such a strong superintendent who has brought incredible vision to our community.”
It’s time to decide on extending Cash’s tenure here, and the School Board needs to say yes.