When I hear stories about miracle schools, my baloney detector goes into overdrive.

You know the ones I mean. Failing school, sometimes a whole district or even a city, turns itself around. Test scores soar. Suddenly all these kids who were failing are on their way to college. These stories inspire us that our problems can be overcome. I’m afraid they also foster the fantasy that all it takes is effort: that any school can educate any population of students if only it tried.

That isn’t true, and when you look behind the hype about miracle schools, a different story emerges. Often lately we’ve uncovered outright cheating or manipulation of test data. More often we find that those high–flying schools had a critical advantage—a select student body, or outside sources of funding.

The story of Rockville Centre’s South Side High School is different. It was ranked this year among the top 100 schools in America by both Newsweek and U.S. News.

South Side’s excellence is the real McCoy. South Side is a community school, not a magnet or charter school like most of the schools on the list. So it doesn’t select its students or have extra sources of funding.

When you have a school like this, in a diverse community, and 77% of its students score high on the most selective exams, that’s big. And it’s instructive.

South Side’s story helps separate the myths from the reality of school success.

First, there are no overnight miracles. The district began its program of de-tracking way back in the 1990’s. They started just in sixth grade and one subject area, and expanded methodically year by year.

Eventually they opened up advanced placement classes in the high school to all students—gifted and low-achieving students, mixed races—and taught them all a rigorous new curriculum. Then they offered lots of extra help to kids who wanted it.

That last part is key. Setting the bar higher, by itself, will not raise the performance of low-achieving students. They need more help.

Making extra help optional did that, effectively focusing school resources on the kids who needed it. This is exactly what doesn’t happen—not nationwide and certainly not on Long Island. Instead, we have affluent school districts, with few high-needs kids, spending thousands more per student than districts where the needs are greatest.

As a diverse community—about half-and-half middle-income and low-income—Rockville Centre has sufficient resources to meet its struggling students’ needs. Impoverished districts are a different story. Here the high needs of so many children overwhelm the meager resources. To demand that these schools “compete” is indecent.

Instead of grasping at miracles, we should start thinking clearly about education. Long Island’s schools—and America’s—are not failing. It’s poor neighborhood schools that are failing. The real miracle will come when we all decide to face that reality, and deal with it.

View data and analysis of education on Long Island.