Niagara Falls Superintendent Mark Laurrie offered an extremely disturbing story during his recent meeting with members of the Niagara Gazette’s editorial board.

Laurrie admitted that he had an instance where a 17-year-old student had not yet managed to secure even a single high school credit. 

The story shook some editorial board members, who couldn’t help but wonder how it was possible for someone that age to not have secured enough knowledge or demonstrated enough skills to be considered in the passing category of a single subject taught at Niagara Falls High School.

While this student’s story is not the norm and is not counted among the majority of students who are demonstrating academic success in the city’s school district, it does underscore the magnitude of the issues facing an urban district where, for a variety of reasons, students of all ages still find themselves struggling to grasp even the basics. 

Laurrie said the most recent graduation rate in the Falls sits at 77 percent, far from ideal and still lagging far behind rates find in many other more affluential districts in Western New York. 

One of the biggest, if not the biggest, challenges facing educators in the Falls stems from attendance, according to Laurrie, who says it is still far too often the case that students - including many who are still elementary school age - do not get the education they need because they simply aren’t finding their way into the classroom on a consistent basis. 

Laurrie, under the direction of the city’s school board, has taken steps to try to address student absenteeism and tardiness, including bringing in social workers to try to educate parents of students enrolled in the district’s new 3-year-old program about the importance of making sure their kids are in school each day classes are being offered.

While to some this might seem an extreme measure, especially given the fact that grade school children are required, by law, to go to school, in order to meet the challenges that often prevent students from achieving academic success, it is, as Laurrie notes, necessary at times for the district to get creative and extend unique services, especially if they lead to better student outcomes. 

Teachers and administrators can develop top-notch lesson plans and be prepared to offer students their best each day.

If the students aren’t there and the parents aren’t engaged in making sure they get there, the lessons of the day are being lost. 

It’s not all on the parents though. 

The district, despite having to deal with some obvious an unfortunate socio-economic issues facing families across the Falls, must continue to do more to set high expectations and support better academic outcomes for all children regardless of their backgrounds. 

It is our understanding that the district has for years employed a truancy officer? If that person is not effective in compelling parents to make sure they are following the law by sending their children to school each day, then perhaps a new approach or system is needed. 

The district is now heading into the second year of yet another large-scale capital improvement plan that Laurrie said will end up costing in excess of $60 million, all of which is fully reimbursable by the state of New York.

In other words, while the state supports continued funding for physical infrastructure - like new playing fields or updated HVAC systems for school buildings - there’s no similar investment plan on the educational side of the operation where, clearly, more needs to be done to make sure “no child” gets “left behind.” 

Can a district that is spending in excess of $60 million on what amounts to building updates and repairs really be considered “poor” or does the situation speak volumes about educational priorities statewide?

Education children is no easy task and it has proven difficult to do so in the Falls district for many years now. 

Knowing even one student by the age of 17 is not able, for whatever reason, to obtain a single credit in a single high school-level course, should be a sobering story for anyone who lives or works in the Falls to hear. 

While district leaders deserve high marks for running a tight financial ship, whatever budgetary gains they may offer up as signs of success are greatly diminished when measured against the disappointing levels of academic achievement and graduation rates of the district as a whole.