August 13, 2008

City’s High School Graduation Rate Falls

By Peter Simon

Buffalo Public Schools' reform effort took a hit Monday when state data showed the city's already alarming high school graduation rate dropped last year by 5 percentage points, to 46 percent.

The decline drew criticism from Robert M. Bennett, chancellor of the state Board of Regents.

"It can be changed," Bennett said at an Albany news conference. "The more accurate statement is: It must be changed. The numbers are not acceptable."

Amber Dixon, the school system's executive director for project initiatives, said the reform efforts launched by Superintendent James A. Williams, who took office in 2005, focused initially on the elementary school grades and will boost graduation rates when they take hold in the high schools.

"We know we're on the right path," Dixon said. "We're going to continue on that right path."

Elsewhere in Erie and Niagara counties, 26 public school districts registered increases in their graduation rates in June 2007, while nine showed declines and three remained the same.

Statewide, 68.6 percent of the students who started high school in 2003 graduated in four years, up from 67.2 percent in 2006 and 65.8 percent in 2005.

Williamsville had the highest local graduation rate at 94 percent, and Clarence, East Aurora, Eden, Iroquois, Lewiston-Porter and Wilson also had rates exceeding 90 percent.

Only Buffalo, at 46 percent, and Lackawanna, at 67 percent, fell below the state average. The average for the state's big cities -- including Buffalo -- was 47.3 percent.

But unlike Buffalo, Lackawanna's 2007 graduation rate jumped to 67 percent from 50 percent in 2006 and 46 percent in 2005.

"We're trying to establish a culture and climate of academic achievement," said Frederick A. Wille, interim Lackawanna superintendent. "I think we've begun to turn the corner."

Wille said Lackawanna is looking at more flexible instructional approaches for "hard-to-teach and hard-to-reach" students.

Some of those efforts, he said, may resemble efforts already under way in Buffalo, which has expanded the school day and school year for many students, reduced class sizes, doubled instructional time in English for some ninth-graders and ended social promotion.

But those efforts have not improved Buffalo's graduation rate, which Williams frequently cites as the most crucial problem he faces.

"The data released today represents students who did not receive the full treatment of our academic achievement plan," Williams said in a news release.

Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, said the drop in the graduation rate shows that Williams' programs are even less effective than earlier efforts.

"The programs that have been instituted are simply not working," Rumore said. "When things get worse, that says a lot. When are the public and the Board of Education going to wake up and say, 'The emperor [Williams] has no clothes'?"

In the news release, Dixon said that Monday's release of state data was "troubling," since the graduation rates already are more than a year old.

In a separate interview, she stressed efforts to focus the next phase of reform on high schools.

Those efforts, she said, probably will deal with the rigor and consistency of instruction, an emphasis on writing and more sophisticated skills, and more help for students working below grade level.

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Originally published by NEWS STAFF REPORTER.

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