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By Jason A. Zwara

If it wasn’t apparent yet, the latest graduation rate report should drive home the point that Buffalo’s public schools are in a state of crisis. As the state reported, graduation rates in Buffalo plummeted, falling from 54 percent in 2011 to 47 percent in 2012. The crisis in Buffalo is real, and the district needs to act with urgency.

The State Education Department entered 2012 concerned that more-rigorous graduation standards might cause graduation rates to decline. The vast majority of districts, however, either saw slight upticks in graduation rates or stayed level. This was a success for the state: graduation standards became more rigorous and students and teachers were meeting the call.

Even in most of the “Big Five” districts, which face high rates of poverty and serve high-needs students, performances were better than expected. In New York City and Syracuse, graduation rates fell less than 0.5 percent; in Rochester, rates fell less than 2 percent; and in Yonkers, rates increased an impressive 4 percent. This cautiously optimistic trend did not hold true in Buffalo, however, where rates dropped by seven percentage points.

In Buffalo, the chronically low graduation rates were largely driven by drops concentrated in the district’s turnaround high schools – schools that were all infused with additional grant funding specifically aimed at improving performance. Yet these schools have not only continued to under-perform, they have all grown even worse.

Bennett High School’s graduation rate has fallen each of the last two years, from 46 percent to 36 percent to 32 percent in 2012. The same trend has occurred at Riverside and Burgard, where graduation rates have been cut in half over the last two years, falling from 49 percent to 24 percent. South Park saw a slight increase in 2011 before plummeting in 2012. It is becoming obvious that the district’s strategy for assisting its lowest-performing, and highest-need, schools is utterly failing.

While the 2012 graduation data covers student cohorts from before the current superintendent took over, the administration cannot make excuses or ignore the report. The reality is that the Buffalo district is in a state of crisis and is in need of real, dramatic and drastic action, not inch-by-inch gradual improvement. The district needs bold leadership, with a comprehensive approach to turning around or replacing low-performing schools, and it needs urgency.

The public understands that the district will not be turned around overnight, but for thousands of students trapped in failing schools, the wait for improvement is growing too long.

Jason A. Zwara is a research and policy adviser for Buffalo ReformEd.