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Some Buffalo high schools are set up to succeed.

Others just aren’t.

Last month, the state Education Department highlighted the dramatic decline in Buffalo Public Schools graduation rates, which fell to 47 percent last year. The state this month slapped Lafayette and East high schools, two of the lowest performing schools, with unprecedented mandates because of the district’s inability to submit improvement plans that met state requirements.

Buffalo has the second worst on-time graduation record among the five major urban school districts in New York State; Rochester has the worst. Six of the district’s 16 high schools registered graduation rates lower than 40 percent.

So why do these schools graduate so few?

The Buffalo News evaluated demographic and graduation data for the six poorest performing schools and interviewed nearly a dozen administrators, principals, teachers and parents.

That data and analysis point to the placement of students with the highest special needs, the most language barriers and the greatest dropout indicators in six “failing schools.”

What’s more, those same students are barred from attending higher performing schools, which have minimum admission requirements.

“We’re segregating our students based on academic performance,” said parent activist Samuel Radford III, who likened Buffalo’s placement policies to a “caste system” and “stacked deck.”

Bennett, Burgard, East, International Prep, Lafayette and Riverside high schools graduated fewer than half of their students last year. Take a close look at the students who were supposed to graduate on time, and more common threads appear:

• Four of the six failing high schools – Lafayette, International Prep, Riverside and Burgard – had the highest concentration of non-English language speakers, mostly immigrants and refugees. In 2012, nearly half of Lafayette’s senior enrollment was composed of students with limited English proficiency.

• Two high schools, Burgard and Riverside, had the highest percentage of students with disabilities. They account for one out of every three students at Burgard and more than one out of every four students at Riverside. Lafayette, Bennett and East also had high disability percentages.

• At four schools – Bennett, Lafayette, Burgard and East – more than 80 percent of students live in poverty. East had the most, 86 percent.

• Five of the high schools (all but International Prep) have consistently had some of the worst attendance rates among of the district’s 16 high schools over the last four years.

“You have zero consequences, zero accountability for the parents and the students,” said Riverside teacher Marc Bruno. He and many other teachers also faulted the lack of parent involvement.

The other common factors all six of these high schools share?

They have all seen alarming drops in their graduation rates from 2010 to 2012 while their populations of special education, immigrant and impoverished students have swelled over the same period.

And they don’t have admissions requirements that prevent kids with serious academic problems from walking through their front doors.

The stacked deck

The best performing high schools in the district keep out the worst performing students.

Of the 10 district high schools that graduated half or more of their students on time, seven have special admissions criteria, The News found.

That means students either had to test in, hold a minimum grade point average or otherwise meet special criteria for school acceptance.

Compare the demographics of the six worst-performing schools against a public school like City Honors, which had the highest 2012 graduation rate in the district – 96 percent.

That school also had the lowest poverty rate at 33 percent, no students with limited English proficiency and a student disability percentage of 4 percent. It was also the least racially diverse.

The district’s complex school admissions protocol puts parents who are the least capable of safeguarding their children’s education at a disadvantage, Radford said.

“You couldn’t have a City Honors in a suburban school district,” he said. “You’re not going to have taxpayers allow their money to be used to provide some children with an outstanding education while the rest of the children get a mediocre education.”

Lafayette High School Principal Naomi Cerre said it is painful for her and her staff to work 20 times harder to mitigate the extreme disparities that exist from school to school without the resources her school needs.

“The community really needs to look at why we have a two-tiered system,” she said, “why the region would support a two-tiered system and how that sets up schools for failure.”

Patrick Foster, a 12-year teacher at Lafayette, said Lafayette had higher graduation numbers several years ago when it had two magnet programs and a lower immigrant population.

But when the school was threatened with closure and faced leadership changes and lost its magnet programs, the district placement office started sending Lafayette a “hodgepodge” of students who were at greater risk for failure.

East High School Principal Casey Young said his school routinely takes in students kicked out of charter schools and other city high schools.

“You’ve got some 16- and 17-year-old freshmen coming in four years behind in reading and writing,” he said, adding that some come into their sophomore year with only two credits to their name, requiring teachers to cram four years of study into two years.

In addition, “phantom students” can affect these schools’ graduation rates. Phantom students are students who don’t attend the school but are administratively assigned to the building for bookkeeping purposes.

Last year, Young said, his school’s graduation rate plummeted because roughly 75 troubled alternative school students and unwanted charter school students were assigned to East even though his school never taught them. Burgard faced a similar situation, he said.

“No matter how hard we work,” he said, “if we don’t get a kid to graduate in four years, we’re considered a failure.”

Schools of last resort

The Buffalo Public Schools’ motto is: a world-class education for every child. But the reality is that for many students, schools like Bennett, Burgard, East, International Prep, Lafayette and Riverside are the last stop on the dropout train.

Principals and teachers said the overwhelming majority of students attending these schools are scoring 1’s and 2’s on eighth-grade state assessment tests, on a scale of 4, a major indicator of a student’s unlikeliness to graduate.

Bruno, a Riverside teacher for 12 years, said his entire building had only one student who scored a 3 this past year. More than 60 percent of students at his school are now non-native English speakers. Many others are kids whose parents aren’t invested in their child’s education.

“You know how many parents I get on parent-teacher night?” he said. “One or two out of 135 students.”

Burgard High School teacher Thomas Fenton said many of the students at his school were dropped by other high schools. Burgard doesn’t dump its kids.

“What do we do?” he said. “Kick them out of Burgard and send them where?”

Many teachers and parents The News interviewed repeated the refrain that certain schools in the Buffalo district are “set up to fail.”

“Is it really the Da Vinci Code why kids are failing?” Riverside’s Bruno asked. “These kids can’t even write three sentences when they come to me, then they’re expected to pass all these Regents exams. There’s an old saying, a good solution is nice, but there’s nothing like a scapegoat.”

He added: “The teachers in my building are busting their humps, staying after on their own time. I feel like we were being blamed for what’s going on there, and it couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Cerre said Lafayette enrolls students speaking more than 40 languages. It is in desperate need of more resources from the district, but the only source of support she has received came from the preliminary work that Johns Hopkins University trainers provided this past year. But now, that professional development is also at risk because of the state education commissioner’s latest directive, she said.

“I’ve gotten to the point after this debacle that I just can’t have people thinking Lafayette is a failing school,” she said. “I feel someone has failed Lafayette.”

She pointed to the 45 schools out of 57 in Buffalo that are not considered to be in good standing with the state.

“You didn’t get 45 schools that got to be Priority and Focus schools just because they’re all bad schools and all bad teachers,” she said. “That’s crazy.”

Other factors

David Mauricio, the former Bennett High School principal who served this past year as the district’s community superintendent for high schools, offered several other factors for why the district’s graduation rates have been on the decline.

The federal government changed the rules for how high school students are counted in calculating a school’s graduation rate, he said. As of 2011, any student enrolled even one day at a high school must be counted as part of a school’s graduation rate data.

That would logically mean that schools with high transiency rates would have suffered because of a change in the rules.

However, while this might explain why the six poorest performing high schools suffered a drop in graduation rates from 2010 to 2011 (a time when the district saw a rise in graduation rates overall), it would not account for the continued decline from 2011 to 2012.

Mauricio also provided a graduation breakdown showing that in 2011, students who had been at one of the six “failing” high schools for all four years had graduation rates 6 to 11 percentage points higher than students who transferred in later. But that difference largely evaporated in 2012.

Mauricio acknowledged that these factors don’t provide a complete explanation for Buffalo’s problems.

“It’s not changing the fact that these graduation rates and achievement rates are unsettling to me and the other administrators here,” he said. “These are just variables. The reality is we have a lot of work to do.”

The work ahead

Stacked deck or not, principals aren’t absolved of the responsibility to design an academic program that reaches every child. The state has made that clear.

Principals Cerre and Young said they have been doing that hard work. They have raised their attendance rates, in some cases driving kids to school themselves.

Margarita Calderon, a Johns Hopkins specialist on non-English speaking students, said Lafayette teachers still need help improving their instructional skills with immigrant students.

Until now, she said, “teachers have not been provided the appropriate professional development that is necessary for them to change their practice.”

At the district level, Mauricio said, administrators have revamped their vocational and career program admissions guidelines to enroll more students. They are also opening a new STAR Academy, which will offer credit-recovery courses for high-risk, overage students and English language learners.

At East High School, which had an on-time graduation rate of 27 percent last year, the graduation rate has climbed to 47 percent as of June. By the time summer school is completed, Young said, more than half of his seniors will hold diplomas.

In his two years, he said, at least 10 community organizations have signed on to assist the students at his school. He offers field trips every six weeks to kids who work hard and keep their noses clean. He started a ski club that attracts more students than basketball and football. And he makes 20 home visits a week.

More kids at Lafayette know there are adults in the building who care about them, Young said. That’s a start.

“We’re going to make our mark,” he said. “We just need the time to get there.”

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For additional insights on these schools’ graduation rate numbers, go online to the School Zone blog at http://blogs.buffalonews.com/school_zone/2013/07/good-stuff-that-didnt-make-the-story.html

email: stan@buffnews.com