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Just one course stood between Keven Ocasio and his high school diploma.

The Buffalo student fell behind at some point during his time at Riverside Institute of Technology. But when offered the chance to catch up using an online “credit recovery” program, he took it.

“This is a huge opportunity for us to have a second chance,” said Ocasio, who graduated from Riverside last week. “Honestly, if it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t be here.”

Ocasio is one of about 200 Buffalo students who benefited this year from new credit recovery programs that let students who are behind earn the credits they need to graduate on time. School officials point to the programs in explaining a significant improvement in graduation rates.

Not all of those students were seniors, but administrators expect the extra boost to also help younger students catch up before they fall too far behind, and hopefully sustain the improvement in graduation rate.

The state Education Department announced last week that Buffalo’s graduation rate increased to 56 percent in 2013, from 47.8 percent in 2012. The state is auditing the rates at two Buffalo schools, but district officials do not expect that review to have a major impact on the outcomes.

District leaders say that the 2013 increase stems in large part from programs designed to help students who fall behind earn the credits they need for a diploma. They hope that it will be sustained when numbers for the 2014 graduating class, including Ocasio, are released next year.

Such efforts have become more common in urban districts that often struggle to get students to finish high school. And while the programs sometimes are criticized as “diploma mills” that offer a lesser quality of instruction, students still need to pass any required Regents exams to prove that they actually mastered the material.

In Buffalo, the effort started with creating a comprehensive system to chart students’ progress and credit accumulation. That system allows teachers, principals and district administrators to see at a glance which students are on track to graduate on time and which are not. The district launched a prototype of the system last school year – in time to boost the 2013 graduation rate – and fully rolled it out this year.

“They know exactly who those kids are and what they need to graduate,” said David Mauricio, a district community superintendent.

The latest data from that system projects that about 2,400 high school students are not on track to graduate on time. The figure is a moment-in-time approximation intended to give administrators an idea of who their struggling students are.

School staff members then use that data to work with individual students who need to catch up, figuring out the best option to help them make up credits.

“Initially, their focus was not on education,” Riverside Principal Denise E. Clarke said of a group of students who completed an online course this year. “They’ve come a long way.”

For Christopher Laureano, the opportunity made the difference in determining whether he would graduate on time with his classmates.

“There wasn’t anything stopping me,” he said, as he became the first in his family to earn a high school diploma.

The GradPoint Online Credit Recovery program largely targets students who have already taken a course, but did not earn credit either because they failed the class or failed the Regents exam.

Students start the course by taking an assessment that determines what material in the class they have already mastered, and what skills they need to review.

The program then targets the lessons to the specific areas students need to focus on.

Students must put in a certain amount of the time at school, where a teacher is available to answer questions and keep them on track. They also can work on the material at home at their own pace, as long as they also meet the in-school requirement.

Those who have not yet taken a course – and are behind in credits needed to graduate – can catch up during an after-school program at McKinley High School. Like summer school, this program gives students from across the district extra time to take classes that won’t fit into their regular school schedule.

Riverside’s Marissa Polovnuk was behind on credits when she transferred to the school as a junior. She did not have time in her regular school-day schedule to fit in all of the classes she needed.

So she took advantage of the McKinley program, spending about two hours a day, three days a week, finishing the courses she needed to graduate.

“It was very helpful for me,” she said.

The program also helped Burgard student Taw Thar Htet Soe, who moved to the United States from Malaysia a little over a year ago. At 19, she had little formal education and no high school credits.

“The education is so different from our country,” she said.

But Soe wanted to earn her diploma so that she can go on to college, study medicine and help support her family.

Along with a full credit load during the regular school day, she took four classes through the after-school program at McKinley.

Her day typically went from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Then she would head home to complete her homework.

The effort paid off. Last week her family joined her when she received her diploma at Burgard’s graduation ceremony.

“It was so amazing,” she said. “I’m so happy.”

Buffalo school officials hope to continue expanding credit recovery programs, possibly including night school.

“They’ve certainly had an impact on the results we’re seeing,” Mauricio said. “That’s why we’re really putting a lot of efforts in it.”

email: tlankes@buffnews.com