David James, the superintendent of Akron Public Schools, outlined briefly in his State of the Schools address on Wednesday the new realities confronting the school system: Curriculum standards are rising; testing is more rigorous; the careers of teachers and principals are on the line with new performance assessments; the demand for workers with post-secondary education has risen. Funding sources have tightened up. The district is struggling to erase a $22 million deficit by June 30. In short, expectations on all levels ó teaching, learning and resource management ó are higher now and will continue to rise.

In this context, it is important to residents whether the system is well-positioned to deliver, in spite of the diversity of challenges in the urban district. James checked off the progress achieved on various fronts. He is proud, and rightly so, of successes such as the Early College High School (ranked 29th in performance among 743 Ohio public high schools) and the STEM school, a source of innovative practices for other buildings.

Reading and math proficiency are rising, albeit slowly. Community partnerships ó most recently the University of Akronís proposed Innovation Generation Scholarship program and the GAR Foundationís $800,000 pledge and challenge for matching contributions toward a STEM high school ó are providing the public support crucial to raising achievement levels.

Yet goals, also, are revealing indicators of the strength of a district. From that view, the stated goals for Akron within the next two years are a sobering reminder of how much work lies ahead for the district to succeed in an expanding field of public-, charter- and private-school competitors.

Consider the graduation rate. As the superintendent noted, the district is committed, as part of its Race to the Top goals, to raise the graduation rate to 80.8 percent by 2014. Without question, that would be a big improvement, given its graduation rate was 76.4 percent in the 2009-10 school year. All the same, the disheartening fact is that even if it hits the target, the district will not be close to the 90 percent rate defined on Ohioís Report Card as the passing standard.

Another of Akronís performance goals, closely related to graduation, is to increase the number of students enrolling in post-secondary education, Again, this is essential to creating an employment pipeline, given the growing number of jobs that now require credentials and training beyond high school. It is not good enough that roughly 20 percent of a graduating class may leave school without the minimum qualifications.

A lagging graduation rate reduces the districtís competitiveness. For an Akron Public Schools eager to reverse declining enrollment, success depends on assembling and sustaining programs and partnerships that keep students motivated and excited to stay and graduate. The superintendentís review suggests a foundation has been laid.