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Good stuff that didn't make the story

Some editors say that a measure of a story's importance is how much information is still left in your notebook after you've finished writing. There was plenty left in mine after finishing my write up about the graduation rates of Buffalo's six worst-performing high schools.

Some interesting highlights that didn't make the paper but are worth noting:

- Though principals and teachers I interviewed complained about the lack of respect and interest in education shown by many of their students and parents, they never include immigrant/refugee students in that complaint.

"The ESL kids are fantastic," said Riverside teacher Mark Bruno, speaking of kids who speak English as a second language. He said he stays after school every day, and the non-native English speakers are the only students who stay after school with him to get extra help.

Lafayette Principal Naomi Cerre said that while her attendance rate has been "horrendous," the kids who aren't showing up are the local, native Buffalo kids, not the immigrant students who now make up the majority of the school's enrollment. Those students place great honor and value on education, she said.

- David Mauricio, who has served as a central office supervisor overseeing all the high schools, said a large part of the reason why the Buffalo district loosened its career-technical education program admission standards this summer was to help mitigate the district's falling graduation rates.

"It connects our students with a goal," he said. "When they’re connected to a goal for the future, they’re much more likely to study for one to two hours a day, come to school every day, because they’re finding much more purpose in their existence at the high school."

Mauricio, who was also former principal at Bennett, did not offer much specific insight into why his own high school's graduation rate fell in 2012, but said he was surprised and disappointed.

- Several parents of students at Lafayette and East high schools offered interesting perspectives into the student populations there.

Maxine Murphy, a grandparent and parent facilitator at East High School said, "A lot of the children are living with people who aren’t their parents or have one or two parents in jail or on drugs. They come with a lot of emotional, psychological and social baggage."

Teachers don't always get that, she said. "Most of the teachers are from the suburbs, and most kids from the city. It’s like the East meets the West."

Sandra Zee, parent of a rising senior at Lafayette, said her daughter is among of the few who is a native English speaker at the school and routinely helps out her classmates who don't have the same grasp of the language. Her daughter has blossomed at Lafayette, is getting good grades and passed her Regents exams -- the polar opposite of what was happening when her daughter was enrolled in Williamsville South.

Even so, the school has obvious challenges, she said. "In some of her classes, no one speaks English."

Attendance is also an obvious issue: "At some classes she goes to, there’s three kids in a class. It starts out at 20. When kids struggle, I think they don’t want to go to school."

- District Parent Coordinating Council President Sam Radford scoffed at the complaints made by district leaders that schools like Lafayette, which has a high immigrant population, are being held to an unfair graduation standard. Here's part of his rant about the district's willingness to "perpetuate failure:"

"Right now, we’re complaining because Lafayette is being evaluated by the State Education Department. Parents, teachers and administrators are saying it’s an unfair evaluation system because our children can’t perform the way the state expects because they’re all concentrated in one building.

"So why are you putting them all in one building? You don’t make the argument that, 'I’m going to continue doing what I’ve been doing.' ... We keep blaming other people for what’s going on in Buffalo. We’re blaming the State Education Department. You know what that says to me? That’s saying our leadership has no intention of doing anything different.

"Other people in this country have figured this out, and we don’t want to be the ones to figure it out. We want the State Education Department to lower its standards so we can be successful doing the same things we’ve always been doing."

- I discovered late Wednesday that part of the reason East High School's overall enrollment figures have fallen so precipitously over the last couple of years  -- down to about 500 kids -- is because Principal Casey Young counseled a lot of overage and undercredited students to leave his school. So I asked him about it.

Young said that after he got to East two years ago, he spoke with about 155 students who were roughly 18 to 20 years old and were clearly not going to graduate on time, or anytime, because they were unlikely to gain the necessary credits before they turned 21.

"If graduation is out of reach for you," Young said, "why are you enrolled in the program?"

In some cases, he encouraged these students to pursue their GEDs or recommended they transfer to the district's alternative school. But he acknowledged that most of these students simply dropped out.

He described many of them as troublemakers and gang members (some of whom had criminal records) who weren't regularly attending school but were "sucking up school resources" and "poisoning the environment." Since these students have left, he said, short-term and long-term suspensions have fallen substantially. The divesting of these students counted against Lafayette's graduation rates, but many did not count against the school's "on-time" graduation rates this year or last because these students had already been in school for more than four years.

- I had hoped to include comments in my story from Burgard Principal Brian Wiesinger and Riverside Principal Denise Clark. Their schools ranked second and third worst in the 2012 on-time graduation rates. Neither principal returned my calls. That's too bad. The principals at Lafayette and East offered many thoughtful comments about why they think their graduation rates have suffered and what needs changing. Wiesinger and Clark missed that opportunity.

- Finally, a note of thanks to my colleague and former Buffalo education reporter Mary Pasciak. When I was drowning in graduation data, she offered to assist in typing in three years worth of numbers. That data showed how fewer and fewer students from high-risk backgrounds were graduating on time from 2010 to 2012.

Mary's work also came up with quite an interesting finding that I couldn't squeeze into the main story but deserves mention. In the six high schools with the lowest performing graduation rates, a greater percentage of black students than white students graduated on time each year, and a greater percentage of poor students graduated on time than students who weren't considered economically disadvantaged. Something to chew on for those who think this is all "a race thing."

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About School Zone

Denise Jewell Gee

Denise Jewell Gee

Denise Jewell Gee joined The Buffalo News in 2007 and currently covers education and suburban schools. She also writes a column for the City & Region section and previously covered government in Erie County and Niagara Falls. Gee graduated from Boston University with degrees in journalism and political science.

@denisejewellgee | djgee@buffnews.com


Tiffany Lankes

Tiffany Lankes

Tiffany Lankes joined The Buffalo News in 2013 and primarily covers the Buffalo Public Schools. She has written about education since 2003 at newspapers in Florida and New York. In 2008, she was a nominated finalist for The Pulitzer Prize. Lankes is an Amherst native and graduate of Sacred Heart Academy and Syracuse University. She started her journalism career writing for the News’ NeXt section.

@TiffanyLankes | tlankes@buffnews.com


Sandra Tan

Sandra Tan

Sandra Tan has been a cityside reporter for The Buffalo News since 2000 and currently covers the Buffalo Public Schools beat. She previously covered the Williamsville school district and was a full-time education reporter for five years prior to joining The News. She graduated from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

@BNschoolzone | stan@buffnews.com


Deidre Williams

Deidre Williams

Deidre Williams began working for The Buffalo News in 1999 and currently covers Buffalo Public Schools. She formerly was a suburban reporter on the Northtowns beat and has been a cityside reporter covering communities since 2004. Williams has a mass communications degree from Towson University.

@DeidreWilliamsB | dswilliams@buffnews.com

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