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Why aren't we treating this as a crisis?

State Education Commissioner David Steiner and Buffalo Schools Superintendent James Williams are bickering about whether the graduation rate among city students indicates stagnation or progress.

Depending on the benchmarks, the numbers released by the state Education Department show modest to no real improvement.

Using the Class of 2005 as a benchmark, Steiner notes that the city's four-year graduation rate inched up only one percentage point, to 53 percent in 2008. And that factors out more than 800 students held back in eighth grade because they were deemed not academically ready for high school.

Williams, using the Class of 2006 as a benchmark, says the graduation rate went from 45 to 57 percent and hails the Class of 2009 rate, including kids who graduated after attending summer school, as a marked improvement.

Yeah, I know, dubious.

High school students

The quibbling over the numbers mask an indisputable reality.

More than four out of 10 high school students are failing to graduate from high school on time. We're talking some 1,050 kids for last year's would-be graduating class alone.graduating

Anywhere from a quarter to a third of high school students have dropped out in recent years. We're talking anywhere from 500 to 1,000 kids a year.

The numbers are depressing, regardless of the racial group, and especially bad among Hispanics. The graduated-on-time percentage for them was 45 percent, the dropout rate 32 percent, for the 2009 graduating class. For blacks, it's 55/23. For whites, 64/21. 

Stagnation? Progress?

I have a better word.


Yeah, crisis.

Why isn't this, and why hasn't this, been treated as a crisis?

Education is as close as it comes to a silver bullet to social ills. Crime, poverty, you name it. If you want to know why we rank as the nation's third-poorest city, look no further than the aforementioned numbers.

Yeah, there's more to it than that -- industrial decline and all that -- but if we want to get back on our feet, we've got to make sure more of our kids are getting an education. Our city is populated with thousands of high school dropouts, and they function as an economic albatross.

Pin our abject failure on poverty if you want, but there is a growing body of research that shows high expectations and a smart educational system can make a big difference. Of course, that requires commitment and fresh thinking, something in short supply in this town when it comes to our schools -- among other issues.

City funding for its schools has remained flat in real dollars while costs have spiked, and we've left it up to the state to make up the difference. 

Neither Mayor Byron Brown nor anyone on the Common Council has rolled up their sleeves and tackled education as a serious issue, despite its importance to the city's future.

So, blame the politicians, but also blame the voters. 

Turnout for the last school board election was a pathetic 5 percent. Compare that to the nearly 60 percent of Iraqi voters who showed up at their polling stations a few days days ago, despite bombs going off left and right.

The BTF? As a union, its primary obligation is to look out for the economic well-being of its members, but it would be nice to see them loosen their grip on their cosmetic surgery rider.

Lazy or indifferent parents? Yes. Absolutely.

Not enough money to do the job? Please. We're spending some $20,000 per student per year. That's not chump change.

Long story short, we as a community need to treat low graduation rates as a crisis. A freakin' crisis. And we need to do it now.


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