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Buffalo graduation rate climbs to 61 percent

The graduation rate for students in the Buffalo Public Schools increased to 61 percent for the Class of 2015, marking the first time in the past decade that the city’s graduation rate passed the 60 percent mark.

Data released Monday by the New York State Education Department showed the district’s rate climbed from nearly 56 percent the previous year when factoring in students who finished in August, which the state considers to be an “on time” graduation. The numbers represent the percentage of students who graduated on time after four years in high school.

Buffalo’s gains appear driven by substantial bumps at a number of schools. Of Buffalo’s 16 high schools, 10 saw their performance improve.

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DATABASE: See your school’s graduation rates for 2015

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Superintendent Kriner Cash attributed the gains to the district’s efforts to create programs that offer students – particularly those most at risk of dropping out – alternatives for finishing high school. The district recently revamped its alternative programs to help students who are behind in earning the credits they need to graduate. It has also refocused attention on programs for students who are learning English and programs that allow students to take career courses.

“They were onto what we call a multiple pathways approach to getting kids through this high school pipeline,” Cash said of the district’s efforts before he arrived in August. “I’m finding we can do even more. We need different on-ramps to help them get on and stay on and graduate.”

The city’s increase far surpassed that seen statewide, where the percentage of high schoolers finishing on time went from 79 percent to 80 percent.

High schools elsewhere in Erie and Niagara counties held steady for the most part, with a few showing substantial gains. Niagara Falls High School, for example, saw its rate increase from 66 percent to 73 percent.

Still, Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia pointed to the fact that nearly 7 percent of students statewide in the Class of 2015 – about 14,590 – dropped out of school, an issue that is particularly pressing among students of color and those in the state’s large urban districts.

On Monday, Elia unveiled proposals to create additional opportunities for students to earn a diploma, including a project-based assessment for students who pass a class, but do not pass the required Regents exam.

“For many students, a high school diploma can unlock opportunities that once seemed far out of reach,” Elia said in a prepared statement. “Students should have more ways to earn a diploma and realize those opportunities – especially children from communities where those opportunities too often remain dreams instead of becoming reality.

“The good news is that more students, particularly those in urban districts, are graduating from high school. But we know the graduation rate could be even higher if students were given the option to meet our standards in a different way. This is not about changing our standard. It’s about providing other avenues for kids to show what they know so they can graduate.”

Indeed, Buffalo has struggled to graduate more of its students, with its rate stubbornly hovering around 50 percent. It outperformed similarly sized Rochester and Syracuse, which graduated 51 percent and 56 percent of students, respectively.

Bennett High School, for example, saw its graduation rate climb from 37 percent to 52 percent, one of the largest jumps in the district. Lafayette High School saw its rate go from 16 percent to 32 percent. Both of those schools are in the process of being phased out and are serving fewer students this year, which some educators say makes it easier to focus on their needs.

At Bennett, officials attributed the improvement to an effort to get more students to show up for school. Staff had noticed that a lot of seniors weren’t graduating simply because they were missing too many days, said Principal Bert Stevenson.

So the school made a concerted effort to identify those at risk of not graduating. They were forced to check in with teachers and staff. If they didn’t show, school officials made phone calls to parents or visited the home.

Stevenson even went to some students’ place of work to ask them why they weren’t in school.

“We just really held them accountable,” Stevenson said. “We’re going to make a concerted effort that these kids cross the stage with a diploma.”

The two Buffalo high schools in receivership, and at risk of an outside takeover, also showed improvement. Burgard High School saw its rate climb from 42 percent to 49 percent. And South Park High School saw its graduation rate increase to 62 percent, up from 57 percent the prior year.

“That was our best graduation rate that we’ve had in many years,” said Principal Theresa Schuta.

South Park has been concentrating on three things to get its graduation rates up, Schuta said.

“We’ve taken a look at our instruction. We’ve taken a look at the supports we’re giving students. And we’re looking at our children one at a time to know specifically what students need,” Schuta said.

The high school in South Buffalo is under receivership and faces a takeover by an outside entity if it doesn’t see continued improvement this year. While South Park still has a way to go, it’s headed in the right direction, Schuta said.

“We are continuing to do the hard work and do what needs to be done to give kids a chance,” she said.

While most city schools showed improvement, one exception was East High School, which is currently under investigation for submitting potentially fraudulent graduation rates for 2015 and which saw its rate drop from 52 percent to 42 percent in the data released Monday. Principal Casey Young, who is on administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation, had previously said he expected his rate to hit 60 percent. It is not clear whether the graduation rate reported by the state factored in the results of the East investigation.

Meanwhile, Niagara Falls Administrator Marcia Capone, who oversees the district’s assessment office, credited specific initiatives for Niagara Falls High School’s increase from 66 percent to 73 percent.

The school introduced a co-teaching model for its special-needs students, who historically graduate in smaller numbers. The model allows those students to attend classes staffed with two teachers, one who focuses on a content area and another who assists students with disabilities. The approach benefits other students, too, since having two teachers in the classroom allows for everyone to get more focused attention.

The school has also introduced a science, technology, engineering and math – or STEM – program that Capone said allows students to participate in more hands-on projects that keep them interested in learning. The program also allows them to make connections between what they learn in the classroom, and how they might apply that to a career in the future.

“They see themselves as having options,” Capone said. “So many of the careers out there are new, they’re not the same ones we always thought of.”

In Kenmore-Tonawanda, the graduation rate at Kenmore East went from 87 percent to 93 percent. Superintendent Dawn Mirand said the school has been spending more time using data to monitor students’ progress and target the areas where they need the most assistance.

The school has also benefited from a program that reinforces students’ positive behavior, something that has cut down on discipline problems.

“We’re seeing fewer discipline problems, which means students are spending more time learning,” Mirand said. “It’s really helping to foster a very positive culture at each school, particularly Kenmore East.”

email: tlankes@buffnews.com, jrey@buffnews.com