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As grad rates rise, 'troubling gaps' persist for some students

The high school Class of 2017 continued to push graduation rates upward, both in the Buffalo region and across New York State.

Roughly half the high schools in the area saw graduation rates rise from the previous year, including Grand Island, Williamsville East, Eden, Sweet Home, Maryvale and Cleveland Hill, according to new figures released Wednesday.

Buffalo held steady.

The city school district saw 64 percent of last year’s graduating class earn their diplomas on time, including those who graduated in August. That’s the same percentage as the prior year.

“I’m still quite optimistic,” said Superintendent Kriner Cash. “You’ll see some things take hold in the next two years and I’m quite confident we’ll get to a 70 percent gradation rate. That will be quite a milestone for Buffalo.”

Statewide, however, there are some troubling signs.

While graduation rates have increased for black and Hispanic students, there’s still a large achievement gap when compared to their white classmates.

And students learning English as a new language continue to struggle, as a whole, and need more help.

That’s the upshot of last year’s graduation data released Wednesday by the State Education Department.

The news, in general, is positive, said MaryEllen Elia, state education commissioner.

“New York’s graduation rate continues its steady, upward trend,” Elia said during a conference call with reporters Wednesday. “We see incremental improvements across the state, holding onto last year’s gains and slowly building upon them. And that’s good news.”

“At the same time, however, troubling gaps in achievement persist,” Elia said, “and we must accelerate the pace of improvement.”

Here’s what the data showed for:

New York State. Statewide, 82 percent of the Class of 2017 finished high school on time, continuing a steady rise over the past decade. The state is on track to meet its goal of 84 an percent graduation rate by the 2021-22 school year.

Other upstate cities. Like Buffalo, Syracuse had a graduation rate of 64 percent last year. Rochester saw the biggest gain from year to year, but its graduation rate of 57 percent was still lowest among the three.

Buffalo Niagara. Roughly half the area’s high schools saw an increase in their graduation rates from last year, while a third saw decreases. The others held steady.

 

In Niagara Falls, the graduation rate went up 2 percentage points to 70 percent through last August.

“I am happy we are going the right way, but I’m not even close to being satisfied,” said Niagara Falls Superintendent Mark Laurrie.

He thinks early intervention is the key to helping more children graduate.

“By the time they get to third grade, they’re struggling,” Laurrie said.

Buffalo. While the district showed an incremental change in its graduation rate from one year to the next, it did notice more students graduating with a more rigorous course load and earning Regents diplomas, Cash said.

The superintendent also pointed out that five of the city’s 18 public high schools included in the data – City Honors, Olmsted, Da Vinci, Middle Early College and Hutch Tech – had graduation rates of more than 90 percent.

But the graduation rates were a reminder of the inequity in the school system, he said, as half of the schools are above the state average for graduation rates and about half are below. That’s an issue that the district is working to address, he said.

Nonetheless, the superintendent is hopeful the district is still on track to reach its goal of a 70 percent graduation rate by 2019, as things start to align over the next couple of years, including some policy changes at the state level and the addition of several new innovative high schools that have been phased in.

While the rate was flat for August, when summer school graduates were included, the district saw a 1 percentage point increase in the number of students who graduated in June.

“I’m impatient by nature, so I’d like to see a higher uptick,” Cash said, “but I’m pleased it’s going in an upward direction.”

Elia, meanwhile, talked specifically about three groups of students lagging behind: blacks, Hispanics and students learning English as a new language. Buffalo has lots of students in all three categories.

Graduation rates for black and Hispanic students have improved slightly the past couple of years, but there’s still a roughly 20 percentage point gap between them and their white classmates.

Statewide, the graduation rate last June was 69 percent for black students and 68 percent for Hispanic students, compared to 89 percent for whites.

“We are making incremental progress but clearly more work needs to be done,” Elia said.

English language learners continue to lag behind, as well, with only 26 percent across the state graduating on time. That’s down slightly from the prior year.

In Buffalo, the data also shows an uptick in the dropout rate for these students learning English.

Districts need to take a closer look at what can be done for those students to help them stay in school and graduate, Elia said. The commissioner also said the state will require districts to add extra supports for English language learners and better track their dropout rates.

Others noticed the gaps, as well.

The results show the need to accelerate progress for low-income students and students of color while maintaining high expectations for all, said Ian Rosenblum, executive director of the Education Trust-New York, which advocates for students of color and those of low income.

“We are concerned that much of the statewide gain appears to be driven by an increase in local diplomas rather than Regents diplomas,” Rosenblum said, “and by the declining 4-year graduation rates and increasing dropout rates for English language learners.”

Graduation rates see uptick statewide: See how your high school fared

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