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Buffalo's graduation rate rises, underscoring statewide trends

Buffalo's high school graduation rate is continuing to climb, with 64 percent of the Class of 2016 graduating on time.

This is an improvement from a 52.4 percent graduation rate eight years earlier.

The Buffalo gains underscore a trend seen across New York, where the graduation rate has been steadily rising over the past decade.

Educators credit improvements in the state's largest urban school systems for the rise.

Some educators say the increases follow a greater focus on performance both statewide and nationally. The state intends to maintain its focus on high standards and accountability, even as it begins offering more graduation options to students in the coming years, State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said.

Those options will include replacing one of the required Regents exams with a career course.

"It's become a major focus," Elia said. "People want to know, 'If I live in a community, will my kid graduate?' It's important for us to know how we are doing there."

Statewide, 81 percent of the Class of 2016 finished high school on time, including those who graduated in August, up from 76.8 percent in 2008.

Performance in Buffalo's suburban districts historically has been strong, and some area schools made noteworthy progress:

    • Both West Seneca high schools improved their graduation rate since last year. West Seneca East went from 87 percent to 94 percent. West Seneca West went from 87 percent to 92 percent.
    • Amherst High School improved its rate from 88 percent in 2011 to 97 percent in last year, putting it in the top five in the county. The gains come as the district also has become more diverse with the percentage of students qualifying for free or reduced price lunch increasing from about 18 percent to 35 percent during that time period. The number of students learning English also tripled from from 42 to 126.
    • Iroquois High School has the highest graduation rate in Erie and Niagara counties, with 99 percent of students finishing on time.
The federal government's increased involvement stemmed from concerns that U.S. students do not leave high school adequately prepared to succeed in college or today's global economy. That concern ultimately fueled a push for tough standards – particularly in high schools.

"I think there was a time where students had lots of opportunities, even if they didn't get a diploma," Elia said. "That's no longer the case. Kids have to have the diploma and we have to work to get them there."

Starting in 2009, New York students had to meet higher standards to earn a Regents diploma and graduate from high school. Ultimately, that meant students passing five required Regents exams. High schools that didn't graduate enough students faced consequences, including having to funnel some of their funding to new programs and even closure.

Even as the standard got tougher, the graduation rate held steady or went up every year.

Some say that's because the state, at the same time, put more money into education. In recent years, state leaders have consistently increased the state's contribution to schools.

“The message here is simple: When you invest more in student learning, students achieve at higher rates,” said Karen Magee, president of New York State United Teachers. “Hard work by students and highly skilled educators in classrooms across the state, supported by parents and caring communities, is moving the needle in the right direction."

Education leaders acknowledge there is still work to be done, particularly in closing the achievement gap between different racial groups of students.

Although 89 percent of white students in the Class of 2016 graduated high school on time, just 71 percent of black and Hispanic students did.

Performance among students who are learning to speak English fell at the bottom of the pack, with 31 percent of those students finishing on time.

Those performance gaps persisted in Buffalo, where the graduation rate for white students was 71 percent compared to 64 percent for both African-American and Asian students and 54 percent for Hispanics.

"While the state’s overall graduation rate went up slightly, we must find more effective ways to address the achievement gaps that continue to impact far too many of our children – particularly those students for whom English is not their first language," said Betty A. Rosa, chancellor of the state Board of Regents.

In Buffalo, the graduation rate was 26 percent for students learning English.

Results at other schools were a mixed bag. Of 17 high schools in the district, 10 saw their rate increase, six dropped and one saw no change.

The biggest gains were at International Prep, where the graduation rate increased by 10 percentage points. Buffalo Academy of the Visual and Performing Arts also saw a noticeable bump, with the percentage of students finishing on time increasing by 9 percentage points.

The district, which has focused on making a number of reforms, has set the goal of reaching a 70 percent graduation rate by 2019. The latest jump in graduation rates keeps the district on track to meet Superintendent Kriner Cash's goal.

"We will continue to work strategically with parents, teachers, pastors, our consortium of higher education leaders and business partners to engage students and promote higher aspirations that make the district graduation rate of 70 percent in 2019 a foreseeable goal," Cash said in a statement Friday evening.

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