The Buffalo Public Schools received praise from state education officials Monday for providing qualified teachers in most city classrooms and for doing far better in that regard than most other big cities in the state.
Just 2.8 percent of the academic classes in Buffalo were taught by teachers not certified in their subject areas last school year, compared with 6.8 percent in 2004-05, according to figures released at a state Education Department news conference. Statewide, the rate of uncertified teachers dropped to 5.5 percent from 7.9 percent.
In contrast, 13 percent of New York City's teachers lacked certification in their subject areas last year, and so did 10.6 percent of the teachers in both Syracuse and Rochester.
Yonkers had the best results among the state's big cities, with just 0.6 of its teachers uncertified.
The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires school districts throughout the country to have certified teachers in all classrooms beginning next summer.
Asked how New York's cities can possibly meet that deadline, State Education Commissioner Richard P. Mills pointed to Buffalo as an example of dramatic progress.
"With all the challenges that Buffalo faces, why is it that only 2.8 percent [of its teachers] are unqualified?" Mills said. "It is possible for school districts to attack this problem directly and make sure students have teachers who are highly qualified."
Mills said the problem of unqualified teachers is slight outside New York's big cities.
For example, just 1.5 percent of the teachers are uncertified in their subject areas in the state's relatively affluent suburban districts, and 2.4 percent are uncertified in "high need" urban and suburban districts.
In Erie and Niagara counties, 19 of 37 school districts had 100 percent of their teachers certified in their subject areas, and none had fewer than 97 percent.
In contrast, 13.3 percent of teachers are not certified in their subject areas in charter schools, Board of Cooperative Educational Services schools and state-operated schools.
Buffalo reduced its percentage of unqualified teachers by developing close ties with Buffalo State College and other local colleges and universities, encouraging its roughly 400 teaching assistants to go back to school to earn teaching certificates and by closely tracking certification requirements, said Superintendent James A. Williams.
"We're not there yet, but this is a step in the right direction," he said.
Buffalo has an even bigger edge on the state's other big cities in hard-to-fill teaching areas. For example, just 1.8 percent of Buffalo's reading teachers were uncertified last year, compared with 44.9 percent in Rochester, 18.2 percent in New York City and 16.1 percent in Syracuse. All of Yonkers' reading teachers were certified.
Buffalo's biggest problems are in foreign languages -- where 12.9 percent of the teachers were uncertified -- and science, which had an unqualified rate of 9.8 percent.
New York State United Teachers, New York's largest teachers union, said qualified young teachers often leave urban and rural schools because of the lack of administrative support, scant resources and little say in decision-making.
"They also tell us they want more manageable class sizes, better salaries and respect," said Richard C. Iannuzzi, president of NYSUT.
Mills said the state will expand alternative teacher certification programs, evaluate the effectiveness of professional development, improve working conditions, strengthen teacher training at colleges and universities and seek ways to rehire retired teachers without pension penalties.
"The capacity to end this problem is right in front of us," he said. "It's in the young people of New York. We have to recruit them."