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Students taking longer to graduate State high school data shows growing trend, with large number needing six years to finish

High school students are taking longer to graduate, making the four-year diploma less common in many local districts, according to information released Wednesday by the state.

Education Commissioner Richard P. Mills released graduation outcome results for students who entered ninth grade in 2002.

During a telephone news conference from Albany, he noted that statewide 67 percent of students graduated in four years -- an increase of just one percentage point from the previous two years.

"It's up," he said, "but it's too low, and it's too slow."

After five years, the statewide graduation rate increased to 72 percent. And after six years, it crept to 73 percent.

Locally, the biggest group of students not graduating on time is in urban areas such as Buffalo, Lackawanna and Niagara Falls, districts where only slightly more than half the students who were freshmen in 2002 managed to graduate by June 2006.

"We're not proud of our numbers," said Buffalo Superintendent James A. Williams. "It's really unacceptable, but we feel we're moving in the right direction."

Williams said the district is providing middle school pupils longer class periods for math and English, stressing literacy in the early elementary grades, seeking grants and partnerships to improve academic offerings and introducing more rigorous high school courses.

"I don't apologize for kids taking more than four years," said Paul Hashem, superintendent in Lackawanna, where 50 percent of the students earned their diploma in four years. "I want to keep them in school. If kids take four-and-a-half years or five, that's fine with me."

Half of the students in Lackawanna who didn't graduate on time remained enrolled. In a recent year, almost half of those who remained in school past their expected graduation date were able to graduate after five or six years.

Of all the schools in Western New York, the results were most dire at Buffalo's Grover Cleveland High School, where only one in four students graduated in four years.

Four-year graduation rates were better in the suburbs and rural areas but were still markedly lower than rates the state had reported for them a few years ago.

In the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda and Lake Shore school districts, fewer than two-thirds of the class of 2006 graduated in four years. The scenario was only slightly better in Cleveland Hill, Cheektowaga, Lockport and Newfane -- districts where no better than three-fourths of the class of 2006 earned their diplomas in four years.

Lockport High School Principal Frank Movalli attributed his school's 73 percent four-year graduation rate to two factors: a high transiency rate and increased state standards. Students in the class of 2006 had to pass five Regents exams to graduate -- something that wasn't the case a few years earlier.

Lockport plans to begin a program next year to shore up instruction in core academic areas for struggling ninth-graders, he said. And a lunchtime detention program has been successful in curbing truancy.

Still, he said, the graduation rates are cause for concern.

During Mills' news conference, the commissioner pointed to improvements in New York City, where the percentage of students graduating in four years increased 6 percentage points over two years, to 50 percent.

In cities such as Buffalo, the news wasn't as good. While 57 percent of Buffalo's ninth-graders in 2000 graduated in four years, that figure dropped to 51 percent for the group of freshmen two years later.

In Erie and Niagara counties, district graduation rates improved an average of 5 percentage points after students were given an additional year. The results improved minimally after six years.

Statewide, the racial divide has been closing slightly but remains a major concern. Less than half of black and Hispanic students graduate in four years, while nearly four out of five white students do.

Locally, the racial gap is somewhat smaller. While 76 percent of white students graduated in four years, only 57 percent of black students and 66 percent of Hispanics did.

The gender divide also is a bit smaller locally than it is across the state. In Erie and Niagara counties, about 72 percent of boys graduated on time, compared with 78 percent of girls. The statewide gap is about 10 percentage points.

News Staff Reporter Peter Simon contributed to this report.

e-mail: mpasciak@buffnews.com

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