Making the grad: Local districts focus on student involvement to keep graduation rates up

A focus on targeting academic problems before students reach their sophomore year and getting students involved in extracurricular activities and sports has been cited as the reason for high graduation rates among a number of Albany, Saratoga and Schenectady county schools.

Graduation rates in Albany, Saratoga and Schenectady counties are, on average, higher than the statewide graduation rate, with Voorheesville Central School District leading the pack with 97 percent of its 123 seniors who started as freshman in 2003.

According to that same report released by the state Department of Education, the statewide high school graduation rate is 69 percent for students who started in 2003 and graduated in 2007, a four-year time frame that defines a group of students known as a cohort.

The 26 school districts in Albany, Saratoga and Schenectady counties, averaged an 80 percent graduation rate.

Close behind Voorheesville in terms of graduation rates are Burnt Hills, with 93 percent of the 297 students in its 2003 cohort graduating, and Niskayuna, with 91 percent of its 2003 cohort graduating.

State Education Commissioner Richard Mills highlighted the need for a hands-on approach to helping students graduate in a written statement he made accompanying the report.

School leaders and teachers must use practices that work, create better connections between middle and high school, and call on higher education and business to partner. This will be a major issue for the Board of Regents this coming year.

He also said more resources are going to be made available to teachers and administrators in the future.

Getting focused

Local school districts have taken this advice seriously, and many have begun focusing on personalized initiatives that target students still in middle school who may be struggling.

Patrick McGrath, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in the Rotterdam-Mohonasen Central School District, which has a graduation rate of 76 percent, up from 73 percent from its four-year 2001 cohort, said one of the most important initiatives has been the "transition team," that strives to get kids through the pivotal sophomore year of high school.

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