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Syracuse graduation rate up, but still behind state goal

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The Syracuse City School District continues to show improvement in its graduation rates. According to state statistics, Syracuse’s graduation rate last year was 55 percent, compared to 51 percent the year before.

That’s good news for the district officials, like the executive director of high schools and career training, Brian Nolan.

“It’s good to see that we now have some good trend data, showing what we’ve put in place is helping and is moving us forward,” said Nolan.

Those things include programs like enhanced regents prep; attendance teams that go out and find kids and get them to school; and data-driven instruction that allows teachers to determine where students are falling behind earlier in the school year.   

Nolan also says the numbers could improve in coming years, now that the state has offered different paths to graduation. In particular, the 4 + 1 program that expands graduation options to include career and technical educations and the arts.

"We’ve had a few students who’ve benefited from the 4 + 1 already, and we believe that impacts us and all the big five schools in a very positive way. And that could expedite our movement forward with the graduation rate.”

Even though the graduation rate is looking better in Syracuse, it lags far below the state goal of 80 percent. Part of that, says chief academic officer Linda Mulvey, lies in the way the rate is tallied. It reflects all the kids that started in high school four years ago. That can be a challenge for a district like Syracuse, where poverty creates families that are more transient,  and an immigrant population that isn’t stable.

“We may not be able to determine where they went, because we don’t have a request for records from Bahrain or China or whatever country the student returned to. We cannot remove the student from the cohort total, so that ultimately counts against us," said Mulvey.

She figures the graduation rate would be pushing 70 percent if those students weren’t counted in the final tally. The other issue in an urban district, is that it sometimes takes extra time for kids to graduate.  For example, the rate jumps to 58 percent after August when students retake the Regents exams.

"When you take a look at the grit our students demonstrate over five years, and even six years. Our students stay and want to graduate.  We miss the point when we want to look at a number at a certain time.”

And perhaps the one defining reason that keeps the districts rate well below the state’s goal -- students, especially minorities, mired in deep poverty. That thwarts many of the attempts to get diplomas in their hands.

"If we were to irradiate poverty, to improve or reduce poverty in our community, we could have an impact significantly in raising graduation rates.”

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.