Two Onondaga County school districts and schools in eight districts have been recommended for improvement by the New York State Department of Education.
A total of 1,325 schools and 123 districts were identified by the state as needing improvement. The recommendation comes under the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, commonly referred to as the No Child Left Behind Act.
North Syracuse was added to the list for the first time this year, joining the Syracuse City School District, which has been on the list for nine years.
The state added an unprecedented 89 schools to the district list this year, bringing the total number to 123. In addition, 847 individual schools have been added to the list, bringing the total to 1,325 elementary, middle and high schools statewide that need improvement. The determination was based on New York state English language arts testing in grades three through eight for the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school years.
The state changed the format of the tests two years ago to make them more rigorous. They also raised the standard for passing, meaning that many more students who would have been considered to have passed in 2008-09 are now considered to have failed the exam.
In North Syracuse, the following schools were named to the list:
Bear Road Elementary School
Gillette Road Middle School
Roxboro Road Middle School
North Syracuse Junior High School
The North Syracuse Central School District has also been named as a District in Need of Improvement.
According to Stanley Finkle, assistant superintendent for instruction for North Syracuse, the district was designated as such because it had more than two schools on the list of schools in need of improvement.
A district can also be determined to be in need of improvement if it fails to meet the state-mandated graduation rate, which North Syracuse met.
“Now, we have to put together an improvement plan,” Finkle said. “And we have to meet the benchmark set by the state for the next two years to get off the list.”
The state will look at a number of criteria to determine how the district can improve its practices.
“They look at a number of indicators,” Finkle said. “They examine our teaching and learning, our institutional practices, they make sure we have a viable curriculum in place, they review our AIS program, they make sure we’re working with our students with disabilities and our English language learners. They’ll look at school leadership and professional development.”
In addition, the state will look at how the district handles low-income students. Finkle said the district-wide poverty rate is somewhere between 23 and 27 percent, and three of the schools on the list – Bear Road, Roxboro Road and the junior high are Title I schools, meaning they have a particularly high poverty rate. Those schools require special treatment as part of the remediation program.
“For the Title I schools, we have to put together an improvement plan as part of the quality review process,” Finkle said. “That has to be reported to the state by Nov. 30. It’s a very comprehensive plan – it goes into every aspect of the school’s structure. It’s a good opportunity to examine what we’re doing. After Nov. 30, we have to put together a comprehensive education plan for all three schools where we address the issues we identified in the review process. All that has to do with increasing student achievement.”
In addition, the school will provide supplemental education services wherein outside agencies will provide free tutoring to those students who will benefit from it.
Gillette Road, meanwhile, is on the list for the first time; it is designated as a “school requiring academic progress.” It will simply be monitored. If the school reaches the benchmark two years in a row, it will be removed from the list.
The junior high has been on the list for a number of years. It is presently designated as being in “Restructuring Year One.” As part of that, a team from the New York State Department of Education and Onondaga-Cortland-Madison BOCES will be on-site with district employees to review the school’s structure and practices and to try to improve student performance.
Despite the negative connotations behind being named a District in Need of Improvement, Finkle sees a positive side to all of this.
“I think the good part is that it’s going to force us to really examine our practices,” he said. “That’s a positive. We have the capacity to improve our schools, no question.”
However, there is certainly a difficult road ahead.
“The challenges are that we’re looking at doing better with a reduction of staff and a reduction of services,” Finkle said. “Those are huge challenges.”
In Liverpool, the following schools were named to the list:
Chestnut Hill Elementary School
Soule Road Middle School
According to Superintendent Dr. Richard Johns, it is the first time both schools, which, like Gillette Road in North Syracuse, are now “schools requiring academic progress,” have been on the list. Johns said there is a qualifier for that classification.
“In order to qualify for subpopulations based on economic need or special education services, at least 30 kids in that building have to be in that subpopulation,” Johns said. “As it happens, in both of these schools, we meet that criteria. And it’s only the special education kids that didn’t meet the annual yearly progress goal. Our regular education kids passed.”
Johns, who has been highly critical of State Ed. in the past, expressed dissatisfaction with the way the state handles the testing process.
“I have problems with the way the state forces special education kids to take the same Regents battery that every other kid does,” he said. “I don’t have a whole lot of faith in the Regents battery.”
Johns was especially unhappy with the new benchmark set for the ELA exam.
“The fact that the number of schools in need of improvement went from 112 to 847 in a year is telling,” he said. “There’s this new, artificially high standard across the state based on this idea that all kids should be prepared to go to college. There are plenty of jobs for kids with technical abilities and technical skills in something other than things measured on the state exams, but they don’t want to hear that.”
That said, Johns said Liverpool is certainly not going to discount the designations.
“We’ll pay attention to it,” he said. “The state thinks it’s the greatest thing ever and it’ll cure all our educational woes. I disagree, but it is a measure, and we’ll pay attention to it and get our kids to do better. We’re not going to lose sight of the other really important things our kids need to do and simply teach to the test. That’s not what our special education kids need. That’s not what any kid needs.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.