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Falls schools look to benefit from Race to the Top funding

The city school district expects to receive nearly $1 million from the federal government's Race to the Top program over the next few years.

"The goal is to improve student achievement and close gaps in learning," school administrators said in a report being distributed this month throughout the district.

To qualify for the money, the schools were required to:

*Adopt standards that prepare students for success in college and the workplace.

*Recruit, develop, retain and reward effective teachers and principals.

*Measure student progress and tell teachers and principals how they can improve their performances.

*Turn around the lowest-performing schools.

"The good news in Niagara Falls is that the district is well-situated to work within the framework of the Race to the Top," said School Superintendent Cynthia A. Bianco.

"The district has no low-performing schools and, in fact, all schools are in good standing under the No Child Left Behind program," Bianco said.

New methods or approaches to teaching are adopted only after they show evidence of success elsewhere, and then they are studied in small-scale pilot projects before they are adopted throughout the district, according to Judie Gregory, the district's spokeswoman.

"One example is the workshop model of instruction that began only in English Language Arts classes and now is used throughout the district in other subject areas," Gregory said.

"Since its adoption, scores in English Language Arts have risen, and students have demonstrated keener critical thinking skills and improved literacy skills in other subject areas as well," she said.

The state has raised the requirements for educational assessment scores and, as a result, districts throughout the state expect a period of adjustment when scores may appear to dip, Bianco said.

"The district is confident that in the long term, the higher standards will serve students best," the superintendent said.

"Our students will compete globally for jobs in technology, communication, business, finance and even tax accounting. Therefore, we have to educate our students at the highest possible standard for their own sakes and for the nation's sake," she added.

Because of the new requirements for test scores, the percentage of students passing the tests in Niagara Falls schools has decreased in recent years, as it has in most other schools in Western New York.

State Education Department figures show that the percentage of students achieving passing scores for fourth-grade English ranged from 68.5 to 96.6 in 2009 in the city's eight elementary schools. The passing percentages dropped to a range of 24.5 to 60.9 in 2011.

In fourth-grade math, the percentage of students passing the state test ranged from 86.3 to 100 in 2009. Those percentages dipped to a range of 31.6 to 87.0 in 2011.

In eighth-grade English, the passing percentages in 2009 at Gaskill and LaSalle middle schools ranged from 50.4 to 64.7. In 2011, those percentages dropped to a range of 35.7 to 47.5.

Passing percentages in eighth-grade math in 2009 ranged from 72.5 to 80.7. Those percentages dropped to a range of 43.5 to 59.4 in 2011.

email: rbaldwin@buffnews.com

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