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Buffalo Public Schools graduated 56 percent of its students last year, a noteworthy improvement over the last five years. The rate is the city’s highest since 2010, when the district’s graduation numbers were artificially inflated after some struggling students were held back from entering high school.

The leap of 8 percentage points from 47.8 percent in 2012 also reflects the biggest increase of any of the state’s five largest city school districts. School and state officials acknowledge, however, that the state is auditing the graduation figures for two of the district’s high schools.

“The preliminary findings show some concerns,” said outgoing State Deputy Education Commissioner Ken Slentz.

The higher graduation rates for most city schools also did little to change the conversation about which Buffalo schools are doing well and which are doing poorly. The schools that traditionally sit near the top and bottom of the graduation rankings have remained relatively unchanged.

Affirming projections

Based on the numbers that the state released Monday, Buffalo’s graduation rate increase far surpassed the state’s, though the overall state graduation rates remain well above Buffalo’s and those of other major urban districts.

A year after tougher graduation standards went into effect, the statewide graduation rate increased to 77.8 percent, from 76.7 percent. The rates include students who finished in August after completing summer school, which is considered “on time” by the state.

Buffalo’s graduation rates exceed those of Rochester and Syracuse, but rank behind those of Yonkers and New York City. Rochester’s rate was 48.1 percent, down from 48.6 percent, giving it the lowest rate of the Big 5 urban school districts. The other city district rates include Syracuse at 51.9 percent, Yonkers at 72.3 percent, and New York City at 66 percent.

The gains in Buffalo appear to affirm departing Superintendent Pamela C. Brown’s graduation rate projections from last year, figures that were questioned by her critics. Under mounting pressure, Brown negotiated a buyout agreement with the Buffalo School Board last week.

‘Hollow victory’

School Board President Barbara A. Seals Nevergold called the state-released graduation rates a “hollow victory” for Brown.

“I think Dr. Brown should be acknowledged for the progress she made in the district,” Nevergold said, “and she is owed an apology from the board members who called her statistics unbelievable.”

Though six of the city’s 16 high schools still graduate fewer than half of their students, every high school but one – Emerson School of Hospitality – showed year-over-year graduation gains.

However, both state and local officials confirmed that the state Education Department is auditing the figures for East and McKinley high schools. Both schools showed major one-year gains. Slentz said the state is also auditing these schools’ attendance figures.

The state generally accepts self-reported graduation figures from the district but can audit any school’s graduation data.

East’s graduation rate showed the largest gain, by far, of any Buffalo high school, rising from 27.8 percent in 2012 to 48.9 percent last year. The state is asking for more proof that the students who were originally part of its class of 2013 but left prior to graduation transferred to other schools outside the district and didn’t just drop out, officials said.

At McKinley – where the rate jumped to 66.2 percent, from 57 percent – the state is determining whether it was appropriate for the district to grant physical education waivers to some students enrolled in the junior ROTC program, said interim Superintendent Will Keresztes.

Top schools stay strong

The audit of the two schools may be completed by September, Slentz said. He added that the state is auditing the graduation rates of certain low-performing schools, starting in Buffalo and working east through the state.

“Our job is to make sure that, to the greatest extent possible, the public has accurate information,” he said.

As expected, high schools with admissions criteria had the highest student graduation rates.

City Honors School held the top spot with a graduation rate of 98.2 percent, followed by Leonardo Da Vinci High School. Both schools have consistently ranked first and second in recent years.

“While we are a criterion-based school, our students still have challenges,” said Da Vinci Principal Florence Krieter, adding, “My thing is, why should we deliver average instruction? Why should I expect average homework or average test scores from my students?”

The high schools that showed high growth, as well as high graduation rates, included the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts, Hutchinson-Central Technical High School and Math, Science Technology Prep School.

Hutch-Tech Principal Sabatino Cimato credited a community effort for pushing “blue-collar, hardworking kids.”

“It’s really a buy-in from the kids, the teachers and the community,” he said. “Everybody’s just thinking out of the box to do what it takes for kids to succeed.”

Ranking fourth among all high schools is Middle Early College, a smaller high school that caters to struggling, C-average students and provides them access to credited college courses.

Middle Early College provides extra support to students, including a mandatory, four-week, full-day summer school program, said Principal Susan Doyle.

“It’s a small staff,” Doyle said, “but we’ve never worked harder.”

Troubled high schools

Riverside Institute of Technology had the poorest graduation rate of all 16 city high schools, with only one out of every four seniors leaving with a high school diploma. The school’s 25.6 percent graduation rate grew by only 1 percentage point from 2012 to 2013, but it was down from two years prior, when 33.9 percent of students graduated.

Lafayette and Burgard high schools also graduated fewer than a third of their seniors. Like Riverside, these schools showed one-year rate gains but were down overall compared with 2011. In recent years, all three schools have consistently ranked at the bottom.

“It means we haven’t equitably supported our schools, like we should have over the years,” Keresztes said. “Some schools may need more support than others, and the district needs to take that responsibility very seriously.”

Racial disparity

Keresztes attributed the overall gains in Buffalo to the hard work of staff, parents and students, along with new credit recovery programs and incentives provided by Say Yes Buffalo and its offer of a free college education to all students who qualify.

“Students and parents are stepping up and responding to the life-changing opportunity provided by Say Yes Buffalo,” he said.

“I also commend Dr. Pamela Brown for having implemented several initiatives targeting credit recovery for students. This is just the beginning of what must be rapid progress in our four-year graduation rate.”

Credit recovery programs provide students with extra help mastering the specific skills they need to pass the Regents exams, in some cases without having to retake entire courses.

The district also offers remedial courses each summer for students who have taken a class but failed the exam. Students also have the option to take courses through an online program, completing their work either at school or at home.

With any of those credit recovery options, however, students still need to pass the required Regents exams.

Buffalo’s graduation rate has been fluctuating up and down for the last five years, something state officials said varies with the size the class being measured. The rate tends to go up when the size of the cohort – the class of students who entered four years earlier – is smaller. The district’s rates tend to go down when the cohort size is larger.

State officials, however, cautioned that despite the gains, there is still a wide achievement gap between students of different races.

Buffalo’s white students continued to do better than minority students, and females better than males. Based on a chart of four-year June graduation rates released by the state, 42 percent of Buffalo’s Hispanic male students and 45 percent of black male students graduated in four years, compared with 61 percent of white male students.

That disparity is echoed in all of the Big 5 districts.

The black male graduation rate in Buffalo, however, reflects marked improvement for the city, which has historically seen its rates as low as the 20s. Buffalo reported a black male graduation rate of roughly 40 percent in 2012.

During Monday’s Board of Regents meeting, Chancellor Merryl H. Tisch suggested that the gap is driven by an unequal distribution of talent and resources among school districts, a disparity that particularly hurts poor, urban school systems.

“We know that our most gifted teachers and our most seasoned teachers oftentimes do not want to teach in those struggling schools,” she said.

“The whole package here is a very interesting, sobering lesson on where we take the conversation,” she added. “Access and opportunity is a very large concern for these students, and these data points really highlight that.”

Few are college-ready

Keresztes echoed that concern for Buffalo, saying that the district must look to models that are already working in the schools as potential solutions for improvement.

“We cannot be satisfied with this progress though,” he said. “The combined graduation rate for male and female Hispanic students is now significantly trailing other groups. We must learn from our mistakes in the past and not wait to provide interventions to turn this around. Hesitancy has been our greatest shortcoming.”

State officials point out that while the number of students passing the Regents exams is slowly rising, those earning top marks on the exams remains low.

The state assesses that using two measures. The first is the percentage of students earning an advanced Regents diploma, which requires them to pass eight Regents exams. Statewide, that number went from 29.9 percent to 31 percent.

The state also calculates an “aspirational performance measure,” which gauges the percentage of students earning top marks on the English and math Regents. It is intended to measure whether students are prepared for college and the workforce. The figure includes graduates who earned at least a 75 on the English Regents and an 80 on the math exam.

The percentage of students deemed college and career ready in Buffalo remained low, rising to 11.7 percent, from 9.7 percent. That compares with a New York State rate of 37.2 percent.

For an interactive school-by-school summary of graduation figures for Erie and Niagara counties, visit the School Zone blog at www.buffalonews.com/schoolzone email: stan@buffnews.com and tlankes@buffnews.com