EDITORIAL: State must act on Bridge

DID YOU KNOW that almost all the school districts in the county are average? All except one. That one is in the “high” category. But the designations in this case don’t reflect the quality of education or even the scores on standardized tests.

These labels indicate the educational needs of the districts as the state determines them. And it’s likely the people in the Hudson City School District would prefer to be an average place for children to learn rather than one with “high needs.” The numbers, however, say the state is right.

Hudson struggles on many fronts, but the most striking is its poor graduation rate compared to its neighboring districts. It’s graduation rate overall was 25% below the best schools in the county, and though it has the most diverse population of any local school district, students lumped together as “non-white” have the worse graduation rate in the county.

The graduation rate matters. The statistic that signifies the success or failure of a school district is the percentage of kids who graduate within four years of entering high school. Not so long ago “social promotion” was an acceptable way to move students to the next grade and then out of school altogether regardless of their academic achievement–or lack of it. That practice made diplomas granted to those students nothing but worthless symbols of a cynical neglect.

The adoption of more rigorous testing has restored the value of each diploma. But that now leaves us unable to hide from the fact that too many students don’t graduate. We ignore the consequences of this fact at our peril.

In this issue reporter Jeanette Wolfberg has assembled graduation data from the previous three years through 2012. Students who meet graduation requirements by the end of August of this year will still be counted as having graduated with the class of 2013, which helps explain why the public data are a year out of date.

The accompanying explanation provides some guidance on what to look for in the tables, because it’s difficult to tease out the importance of the numbers without looking at them a few times. The point behind presenting the statistics without a journalistic narrative is that the figures for the low graduation rates of kids who suffer from disabilities, poverty or racism don’t need someone else to tell you what they reveal.

Hudson City School District officials have initiated a number of programs that might help improve the grim graduation statistics. One of the most hopeful is the Bridge program alternative school in the old Register-Star newspaper building at Warren and 5th streets. The program is a collaborative effort with the Catskill School District and staff from the Berkshire Union Free School District in Canaan, a residential program that has a long tradition of helping at risk students.

A few days ago, after months of careful planning by the local districts, lawyers for the state Education Department called a halt to the project, saying that they suddenly discovered it needs voter approval.

The principle of voter control over school spending is an important one, but this is an unacceptable attack on the good faith efforts of the districts to halt the great wrong of an education system that fails miserably to give all students an equal chance to graduate.

Anyone who thinks the state or its citizens can ignore this problem and make it go away has retreated into a fantasy land out of touch with the larger trends already well under way in this country. Our population is rapidly becoming more diverse. The more kids we leave behind today, the higher our costs will be tomorrow.

We can’t invent educated people, at least not yet. We have to educate them, which requires a lengthy, expensive process. When school districts come up with promising solutions, the job of the state is to help make the programs happen, not callously consign children to a permanent educational disadvantage.

It’s time for the state Education Department and Governor Andrew Cuomo to find a way for the Bridge program to open on schedule next week. Blocking the program at the last minute is not a solution, it is a perpetuation of the same insensitivity that got us into this graduation mess to begin with. If our state officials cannot make this happen here and now, who will speak for our children?

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