April 26, 2007

Graduation rates declining in most area school districts


Joe McIntyre/staff photographer
Chris Crossway, right, and Talon Sprouse, center, meet with friends in the hallways of Homer High School before classes begin this morning.

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — Area school districts are seeing graduation rates decreasing with time, although two schools did increase the percentage of students graduating in five years from 2000 to 2001, according to state figures released Wednesday.
DeRuyter and McGraw school districts saw increases in the five-year graduation rate and both were above 80 percent.
Statewide high school graduation results showed 72 percent of the students who started ninth grade in 2001 had graduated after five years, by June 30, 2006.
Two school districts in the area reported figures below this statewide figure — Cortland graduated 70.4 percent of its 2001 ninth-grade students by June 2006 and Groton 65.9 percent of its students.
Statewide, 67 percent of the students who started ninth grade in 2002 had graduated after four years. This is an increase of 1 percentage point from the four-year graduation rate of students who started ninth grade in 2001. Schools in the area that failed to meet the statewide average were Cincinnatus at 64 percent and Cortland at 65.8 percent.
Bruce Sharpe, superintendent of schools at DeRuyter, said the smaller schools do have advantages over large school districts, such as Cortland and Homer, in providing academic help to students, known as academic intervention services. At DeRuyter, he said, these services are incorporated throughout the day and are available to all students. “I think the staff has done a good job providing those services.”
“We also know there is room for improvement,” Sharpe added, noting the district is always looking at updating curriculum and one need in particular is to expand technology. While there are computer labs at the elementary, middle and high school levels, Sharpe said teachers need more technology so it can be incorporated into classes. He said the 2007-08 budget incorporates more money for technology this year.
“We need to do a better job of getting more students across the stage” for graduation, said Cortland Superintendent of Schools Laurence Spring.
Spring said one particular concern in the district is getting special education students to graduate. He said a significant amount of the increase in state aid for education will go to address this issue with the hiring of a part-time psychologist and more special education teachers, who will be able to provide more individualized attention to students as well as additional classroom help.
For general education students, Spring said ninth grade is a critical year. He said ninth-graders would be linked to an upperclassman next year to help acclimate to the high school.
“All freshmen would have a mentor,” he said.
Spring said there also would be more staff training, focusing on specific workshops regionally dealing with issues affecting graduation rates, such as how to make school look different for some of the students and what do staff members need to do differently. “We are asking staff to help craft that vision,” Spring said.
At Groton, Superintendent of Schools Brenda Myers said a new ninth-grade orientation program will transition students from eighth grade and will encompass the entire year, connecting students to the entire ninth-grade team of teachers and staff.
Spring said another initiative the district will take is credit recovery — so if students fail, for example, first quarter with a grade in the 50s, they can make up the quarter by coming in after school for help. Spring said this should help the student succeed for the remainder of the year, especially in classes that build on knowledge and “motivating students.”
Spring said this approach is for students who are willing and want to graduate.
Spring said significant decreases in graduation rates are in part due to the state changing the way graduation rates are calculated — including more students in the dropout rate than it used to include.
Spring said, for example, students earning a general equivalency diploma were not considered a dropout in older calculations but now a student going for a GED is a dropout.
Sharpe also said he was concerned about the spike in the dropout rate, which went from 6.1 percent among students entering ninth grade in 2001 to 22.5 for students entering high school in 2002.
“One student represents about 3 percent in this school,” Sharpe noted. “The good news is there have been no dropouts this year,” he said.
Sharpe said the district is trying to identify students that might drop out early and increasing academic help available to them.
He said all staffing positions are maintained in the 2007-08 district budget.
Myers said a dropout prevention subcommittee was formed last year to address dropout rates. One program that the district has already implemented is an alternative education program. She said there are 14 students in the program, which combines academics with work-based internships.


Housing concerns dominate 8th Ward meeting

Staff Reporter

Eighth Ward residents questioned the city’s enforcement of housing regulations and other issues at a meeting Wednesday with their alderman and a city code department official.
The incorrect date for the meeting at the Onondaga-Cortland-Madison BOCES center on Port Watson Street was given to the news media, and Alderman Tom Michales wondered if the confusion might have explained the attendance of only five residents.
Nevertheless, or perhaps because of the small size of the group, a colorful discussion of code and zoning issues and pending city business allowed the residents to have all of their questions answered.
County Legislature Chairman Marilyn Brown, who represents the 8th Ward, had planned on attending the meeting but opted to attend an award ceremony instead.
Terry and Sharon Contento, of East Avenue, talked about recurring code issues, such as garbage on front lawns and overgrown, poorly maintained backyards that have become havens for feral cats.
Zoning Officer Amy Bertini said she was aware of these problems and had been trying to resolve them for some time.
The discussion soon led to the topic of a proposed moratorium, which would put a halt to new construction of apartment buildings and block the conversion of single-family homes to multi-family homes.
The moratorium would allow the city time to make changes to its zoning and code ordinances, Michales said.
“Unfortunately, you can’t do that to just that particular building … This city has worked very hard to encourage business so our taxpayers can get a little break,” Michales said.
He was referring to the genesis of the moratorium proposal in local developer John Del Vecchio’s plans to develop the former George Brockway house at 19 W. Court St. into an apartment complex for between 48 and 60 students.
Otto Janke, of Church Street, wondered how that would be allowed from a fire safety standpoint, and Bertini explained that an existing sprinkler system in the home allows such an intensive use, and Del Vecchio would be improving the layout of the site to allow for better emergency vehicle access.

Homer housing proposal draws opposition

Staff Reporter

HOMER — Supported by a representative from Citizens for Aquifer Protection and Employment, residents voiced concerns Wednesday about a proposal to build up to seven houses on 45 acres on the east side of Kinney Gulf Road.
The comments came at a public hearing of the town Planning Board held to discuss the plans of developer Andy Partis, of Partis Development, who wants to subdivide the land about a quarter mile south of Route 90. About 15 people attended the hearing.
Many residents living on and around Kinney Gulf Road think the project will have a significant impact on the surrounding environment, worsening runoff and flooding problems in that area, increasing traffic on an already dangerous road and ruining the area’s aesthetic.
“We’re not experts, but the board should take these things into consideration,” said John Kearns, who lives on Route 90 near Kinney Gulf Road. “The project can still move forward but move forward in a correct manner.”
Partis has completed the first part of the project’s state environmental review, concluding that the project will not have a significant impact on the surrounding environment.
The board sent the form to the county Planning Board, and the county board gave the town Planning Board the go-ahead to complete parts two and three of the environmental review. Dick Crane, chairman of the town Planning Board, said the board will determine sometime during parts two and three whether the project will have a significant environmental impact.
After Wednesday’s public hearing, Planning Board members said they needed more information about the project before going ahead with the environmental review, such as a proposed basic storm water pollution plan, a map showing land contours, ponds and streams both on the site of the proposed subdivision and 114 acres of land owned by the developer across Kinney Gulf Road, and input from the county Soil and Water Conservation District about the project.
They tabled continuation of the state environmental review process until next month, saying they also would like to review documents received from concerned residents.
After the meeting, Partis said he expected opposition to the project.
“Things change, and people don’t like change,” he said.
He said people should understand that he, along with his lawyer, Matt Neuman, are taking all the proper steps to prepare for the project. They already, for example, increased some lot sizes from the original proposal to comply with new county Health Department requirements.
He said people should also realize all seven houses will not go up at once.
“It could take up to four, five years,” he said.


Humanitarian club pays off in first year

Staff Reporter

HOMER — A public-service-minded club that took shape this year at Homer Junior High School has grown to 14 members and raised $718 so far for various charities.
Eighth grade social studies teacher Kim Butts said she formed the Humanitarian Club at the beginning of this school year both for interested students and to get herself into volunteering.
“I thought maybe this is a way I can help myself also,” she said.
The group meets about once a month during tenth period after school to plan fundraisers and volunteer projects, which are carried out between meetings.
Members say they joined the group to help people, pass time between school and after school sports and learn new skills.
The group’s first fundraiser was a hat day in January that raised $338. Of that money, $250 will pay for a water buffalo for a family in a southeastern Asia country.
The water buffalo, which is purchased through nonprofit Heifer International, can provide such benefits as milk to the family.
Eighth-grader Sarah diGiovanni, 14, said that gift may not be the biggest in the world, but it’s better than nothing.
“A lot of people don’t think we do a lot but a little bit is more than not trying,” she said.
Butts said the school’s Student Council is matching the Humanitarian Club’s $250, allowing two water buffalo to be sent.
She said the remaining $88 raised by the Humanitarian Club from the hat day will go toward the Shriners of North America, a nonprofit that gives money to pediatric hospitals.
Butts said the students were inspired to do so after a local Shriner, Tyson Smith, died in a car accident in January.
The group is doing another fundraiser in conjunction with the high school where it is selling “Save Darfur” T-shirts.
So far the Humanitarian Club has raised $380 from that effort while the high school has raised more than $594.
Lisa Lorch, a social studies teacher at the high school, said half of the money will go to the Save Darfur Coalition, a nonprofit whose mission is to raise public awareness about the ongoing genocide in Darfur, a region in western Sudan, and to mobilize a unified response to the atrocities that threaten the lives of 2 million people in the region.
The other half will go directly to humanitarian relief in Darfur, she said.


Law enforcement agencies get $30,000 federal grant for radios

The County Sheriff’s Department has received a $29,500 Weapons of Mass Destruction Grant from the state Office of Homeland Security to purchase 45 new portable radios for county and municipal officers.
The Sheriff’s Department will utilize 25 of the radios, the city police will take 16, the Homer Police Department, three, and the McGraw Police Department one radio.
Able to handle 48 programmable frequencies — the previously used models could handle only 16 — the radios will provide for better interoperability among departments, according to County Undersheriff Herb Barnhart.
“It’s going to give us better communications not just amongst other local departments, but with other agencies and other counties, too,” Barnhart said.
On top of the 16 radios the city will receive from the grant, the department has purchased another 25 radios for its officers, according to Deputy Chief F. Michael Catalano.
“Many of our portable radios had been in bad shape, they take a lot of wear and tear,” Catalano said. “We really needed to upgrade, to get better reliability.”
The additional radios, which, with needed accessories, cost the city about $15,000, will allow the department to assign a radio to each of its officers.
“It’s going to give them the opportunity to listen in on what’s going on even when they’re off duty,” Catalano said.