In a meeting with The News editorial board, Buffalo’s new school superintendent said something that shows her head is in the right place as she takes on the task of turning around this long-struggling school district.
Actually, it was two things she said, first in setting a goal of reaching an 80 percent graduation rate in five years and then, in a clear-eyed statement, defending it:
“It is an aggressive objective. I know that and I don’t take it lightly,” she said. “But where do we set it? Sixty percent five years from now? That isn’t good enough for the children of Buffalo. That wouldn’t be good enough for my child. That’s not good enough for anybody else’s child.”
It really is an aggressive goal. Buffalo’s graduation rate has long been mired in the 50 percent area, and changing the dynamics that have produced that dismal circumstance will not be easy. But goal-setting is integral to goal-achieving, and it is much better for Brown to set a goal that makes everybody sweat than to set an easy one that only perpetuates the district’s failure.
And, as she said, what parent is going to be satisfied with a school district that graduates only 65 percent of its students? Who would move into that city and send their children to the public schools?
It was the right tone to set. But setting goals is one thing, figuring out the yearly, monthly, weekly and daily steps it takes to achieve them is something else. Brown and the rest of the district – and, indeed, the entire City of Buffalo – have their work cut out for them.
Brown seems to understand that. She said she will rely on data for decision-making. As an administrator in Philadelphia, for example, the district was able to track down the parents of students just short of the credits they needed to graduate, and got half of those 1,300 students into summer school. Most of them graduated.
This improvement should be more than just a school goal. While Brown and the other school district employees are paid to do this job, the benefits of a functioning school district will radiate far beyond the walls of the city’s schools. It will attract residents and businesses, help to decrease unemployment and expand the city’s tax base.
The school district already has powerful new help in achieving this goal. The arrival of Say Yes to Education, a nonprofit organization dedicated to giving all public school students the chance to go to college, is a watershed event.
The organization plans to use a detailed approach to help improve education in Buffalo, while also dangling a carrot before students: All who graduate can go to a state college for free. That’s a game-changer for students and parents whose vision was never set that high for lack of money.
Brown showed in other ways that she was a solid choice for superintendent. On absenteeism, for example, she rejected the idea of reinstating a policy that requires students to attend classes at least 85 percent of the time in order to take a Regents exam or be promoted to the next grade. That policy would allow 28 days of absences and is too lenient, she said, noting that chronic absenteeism begins at the 18-day mark.
What is more, she noted, there could be circumstances in which a student misses 28 days but still mastered the required work. Not to promote that student would be needlessly punitive, she said.
The work has hardly begun for Brown, whose first school year here began just a month ago.
But she has embarked on a path that could lead to good things if she holds fast and gets the support she needs, from the community, the teachers and principals and the school board.