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If your boat’s motor has stalled and the craft is also taking on water, the first thing to do is plug the leak. Start working on the engine, for sure, but fix the leaks right away. Do the critical things that can be done relatively easily.

That’s what leaders in the Buffalo School District have done, and wisely so. By instituting a “credit recovery” program, they helped to improve the district’s 2013 graduation rate to 56 percent from the previous year’s 47.8 percent. It’s a significant improvement, assuming the numbers hold up after an ongoing audit, and it was achieved by plugging the holes.

It was an important preliminary step to take – fixing the things that could be fixed quickly – but it is also important to note that the critical and more difficult work of restarting the engine still awaits. The eight-point improvement is welcome, but a 56 percent graduation rate is still nothing but appalling.

The credit recovery program is designed to help students who have fallen behind earn the credits they need to graduate. These are students who are motivated and not so far behind that they can’t make up the work, sometimes by committing to after-school help.

It didn’t happen by accident. The district began the effort, under former Superintendent Pamela C. Brown, with a comprehensive system to chart students’ progress and credit accumulation. With that, teachers, principals and administrators could easily see which students were on track to graduate on time and which were not. With only a prototype of the system in place, the district still raised the 2013 graduation rate by helping students at risk of failing to plug the holes. For the year just ended, the system was fully in place.

As obvious an approach as this might have been, it was no small thing. It took organization and effort. Indeed, failure to have taken a step such as this would have been criticized, and rightly so.

There can be tremendous value in going after such “low-hanging fruit,” and when that work means helping students who for fixable reasons might not graduate, such efforts are urgent. They can mean the difference between a mediocre life and one improved by college and a productive career – hundreds of times over.

Yet, it undoubtedly is the easiest step. It’s important to help motivated students earn their diplomas, but it doesn’t deal with the broken fundamentals, including chronic absenteeism, difficult home lives, labor issues and the array of difficult problems that beset the state’s biggest school districts. A leak has been plugged, but the engine is still not turning over.

That’s one of the reasons the district needed new leadership, both on the School Board and in the administrative offices. Even the state education commissioner, John B. King Jr., expressed frustration with the district’s inability to produce acceptable plans for improvement and for a disturbing pattern of “shading the facts” to explain away its failures. That kind of leadership can hardly help but fail.

The district has a new superintendent, though an interim and short-term one. Starting Tuesday, it also had a new School Board, whose plan is to hire a longer-term interim leader while it searches for Brown’s formal successor. There may be some more leaks to plug in the boat, but the district’s main task now must be to get the engine working.

It can do that by hiring strong administrators and by duplicating successful models in other districts. The Buffalo News is producing an occasional series of stories on the positive work in some of those districts. Most of all, despite this hopeful improvement, it needs to remain profoundly and unalterably dissatisfied with a graduation rate of just over half. It’s better than 47.8 percent, but it still describes a district that is failing.