The statistics are already a year old, but they demonstrate cause for alarm. Buffalo’s high school graduation rate for 2012 fell to 47 percent from 2011’s 54 percent. It posted the second-lowest rate of the state’s Big 5 school districts and the biggest year-to-year drop, at 7 percent. The other four districts were relatively stable.
Of course, things have changed since 2012. The district has a new superintendent, Dr. Pamela C. Brown. Say Yes to Education and the Promise Neighborhood organizations have come to lend a hand. A distinguished educator, Judy Elliott, has been assigned to work with the school district. Those changes may have made a difference over the past year, and so might the election of new School Board members over the next 12 months.
But these are the figures we have now, and they are intensely disturbing. Not only did 53 percent of Buffalo’s students fail to graduate, but the trend moved in the wrong direction, and rapidly.
Meanwhile, the graduation rate in New York City was 60 percent; in Yonkers it was 66 percent. Even those rates are substandard, but they also show that it is possible for Buffalo to do far better than it is. The numbers cry out for a change.
So does the persistence of old and intractable problems, including the dysfunction of the Buffalo Teachers Federation: In collusion with district leaders, it tried to con the State Education Department – and with it, the public – into believing it had agreed to a meaningful teacher evaluation system. It hadn’t.
Instead, it signed a secret side agreement that undermined the agreement on teacher evaluations and that it must have known was in violation of the rules. (And wasn’t that a fine example to set for students?) It was a scam, and the gambit could cost the district millions of dollars and who knows how many students the likelihood of graduating.
It could help for Mayor Byron W. Brown to take a larger role in education, but it’s also easy to understand why he doesn’t. Buffalo’s mayor has no formal role in the city’s schools and, thus, no real ability to influence events. For him, there are only downsides, particularly given the power and obstructiveness of the BTF.
Still, a mayor has stature and Brown should be using his to help where he can: organizing help for schools in need; encouraging parents to get their children to school; putting to greater use the bully pulpit that is his. There may be some political risk to him, but some risks are worth taking.
It is also important not to wait another year before learning about this year’s graduation rates. While there may be complications in making those calculations quickly, some version of them needs to be available by the start of the next school year, and for two reasons.
First, it is urgent to know now, not a year from now, if the city’s graduation rate is continuing to slide. If it declined further, the district will need to respond quickly.
And, related to the first, it will be valuable to get a snapshot on the results of the changes that have already been instituted, including the arrival of Brown and Say Yes to Education.
For now, there is no alternative to presuming that the district is in even worse trouble than it was a year ago. Everyone – the School Board, administrators, teachers, parents and city leaders – needs to focus on this problem if Buffalo is to produce students who can see and believe in the promise of a better life.