One of every four students in Erie County fails to graduate from high school in four years.
And in Buffalo, the situation is far worse. Only half of the city's public school students earn diplomas in the traditional four-year time frame.
"We're batting 50 percent," said Jan Peters, a member of the Buffalo Board of Education. "In baseball, that's good. When you're preparing children for the future, that's not good."
Eight suburban school districts had four-year graduation rates of 90 percent or better for the graduating class of June 2000, according to state statistics. But Buffalo is hardly the only local district that is struggling, as seven others are at or below the Erie County average of 73 percent.
"This is something of really grave concern," said Buffalo Superintendent Marion Canedo. "These kids don't realize they can't be without a high school diploma."
Niagara County is doing only marginally better, with 74 percent of its high school students graduating after four years. The rates are similar to those for graduating classes going back to the early 1990s.
Statewide, the numbers are even worse, with the Class of 2000 shrinking by 40 percent from its freshman year to graduation. In the "Big Five" city districts, graduating-class sizes were only 39 percent of what they started at.
In the Buffalo Niagara region, getting students through high school in four years is not just an urban problem. Small rural districts and some in the first ring of towns also are having problems, statistics show.
Dropout figures misleading
The low graduation rates are significant for many reasons. For example:
Today's students face a bleak future without at least a high school education.
There is a public perception that the Regents graduation standards now being phased in could cause large numbers of students to fall behind and drop out. In fact, widespread student failure was a severe and historic problem long before the standards were adopted, and could now become even worse.
"What was very difficult for many students has now become extraordinarily difficult," Canedo said.
Schools are required by the state to provide extra help to struggling students. The graduation rates indicate how broad and expensive those efforts will be. Lackawanna, for example, is providing individualized extra help to about 200 of its 659 high school students. Costs and class sizes also will rise as more students stay in school an extra semester or year.
Dropout rates, long used to measure the success of students and schools, often present an artificially rosy picture. Buffalo, for example, reported a dropout rate of 2.4 percent among high school students in 1998-99, the last full year in which figures are available, compared to 2.7 percent in Amherst. The state standard is 5 percent.
Educators admit the dropout figures, which are used on New York State's School Report Cards, are a limited and misleading measure.
"We count kids as dropouts if we are not aware of them going into any other kind of educational program, such as transferring into another school or a GED program or entering Job Corps," said Cheektowaga Superintendent Leslie Lewis. "And another downside is that once a kid goes, does he complete where he's going? There's no good tracking system."
Getting a clearer picture
To get a clearer picture, The Buffalo News examined state figures that show how many students entered high school in 1996 and how many graduated four years later.
In Erie County, 3,053 students -- or 27 percent -- failed to graduate in four years. Those numbers are not precise, because students leave the area or move from district to district, and because of quirks in the reporting system. Officials in both Lackawanna and the City of Tonawanda, for example, say the state numbers exaggerated the size of their freshman classes and therefore overstated the number of students who fell short. Lewis said first-ring suburbs such as Cheektowaga often see higher proportions of older students moving to outer-ring towns as their families move out of starter homes.
But educators say that the four-year numbers are the best available method to measure student progress, and that they accurately depict a longtime problem that in many districts has never been addressed.
"The problem is very simple," said Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation. "Students are graduating from elementary school completely unprepared to succeed in high school."
Lamar Allen left Buffalo's Bennett High School three courses short of graduation, and in his fifth year of high school.
"It all depends on how you do your freshman year," said Allen, who is seeking his equivalency diploma at a program run by Catholic Charities. "If you don't do good your freshman year, it's pretty much over."
Many students have similar experiences, said Raymond Perreault, principal of Buffalo's South Park High School.
"The biggest thing I see is that kids get backed up. They get backed up far enough and say, 'The hell with it,' " Perreault said.
"I was a junior with freshman credits. I couldn't stay in school," said Wayne Ware, who dropped out of West Seneca West Senior High School before pursuing his GED and joining the AmeriCorps Say YES to Work program. "There wasn't much hope. Even if I took double classes, I'd be there until I was 21. So I really had no choice but to drop out."
Some students get poor instruction in grade school, or simply don't take their academics seriously.
"I just used to do a lot of playing around," said Rodney Mitchell, who dropped out of Buffalo's Kensington High School and is now seeking his diploma through Catholic Charities. "By the time you get to high school, you don't know the work because you weren't paying attention in junior high. I was a hardhead. I wanted to do what I wanted to do."
In other cases, students who fail one or several grades and who have disciplinary problems at school are discouraged from continuing or are told to leave, said Donald A. VanEvery, a Buffalo Board of Education member.
"It's an unsanctioned practice that occurs and needs to be ended," he said.
GED diplomas on the rise
Family problems are widespread among dropouts, said Michael J. Talluto, who administers three Catholic Charities programs that serve 350 city and suburban students.
"You've got kids who have no real involvement at their school; they're falling behind in their work and have nothing going on at home," he said. "Those are kids who are adrift."
Some dropouts have third- or fourth-grade reading skills and need extensive remedial help just to get into vocational programs, Talluto said.
Because schools are not required to track students after they leave school, it is unclear what becomes of them after they go.
The state Education Department is having internal discussions about assigning identification numbers to students and following their progress, but concerns linger about heavy-handedness and invasion of privacy.
Meanwhile, students often fend for themselves at a time when their lives are fraught with doubts, failure, confusion and anger.
"When I dropped out, it was like, 'I'm a loser,' " said Ware. "It's the lowest I've ever been. Even though I was failing everything, I still had that title of being in high school."
Jarnar Davis said it took all the resolve he had to join Catholic Charities' educational program after dropping out of night school at Bennett High at age 18.
"I didn't have any guidance, I didn't have any passion, and I didn't have any drive," he said. "I had to train myself in my own mind or I would have ended up a deadbeat."
Canedo said the Buffalo schools are considering formalizing a fifth year of high school for some students, as Rochester has done; working with Erie Community College to allow students to earn college credit while in high school; and allowing more students to work during the day and attend classes at night.
In addition, she said, the district's high school reorganization plan is designed to improve the quality and scope of instructional programs, and to allow students to attend nearly any high school they choose.
"We're trying to make high school more exciting, more engaging," Canedo said.
Several suburban schools, including West Seneca, Kenmore-Tonawanda, Maryvale and Williamsville, have started their own GED programs. Statewide, the number of GED diplomas issued through the Alternative High School Equivalency Preparation Program, which serves students ages 16 to 18, has increased from 19,000 annually to about 22,000 over the past five years.
In Lackawanna, struggling students are required to attend extra help sessions during the school day. Also, summer school is being revamped, students from Buffalo State College provide volunteer assistance in district classrooms, and support services such as drug and alcohol counseling are available to the families of students, said William Bilowus, the principal of Lackawanna Senior High School.
But three students who dropped out of Buffalo schools and are now seeking high school equivalency diplomas criticized what they described as overly strict restrictions on the use of hall passes and visits to bathrooms and lockers in city schools.
"In high school, they treat you like children," said Rodney Mitchell.
But school officials said many students need to adopt a more far-sighted view of the future. Perreault said dropouts sometimes are content to live with their parents or other relatives and take minimum-wage jobs.