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“Graduation rates really miss one huge thing, and that’s the relationships”

Earlier this month the state’s Education Department released graduation rates for districts across the board.

The news was good: Graduation rates ticked upward to 84.8% in New York State. It reflected a 1.4 percentage point increase from year prior. It also showed a strong trend upward from the group of students who graduated a decade ago – when the state’s graduation rate sat at 76.8%.

Dr. Christopher Brown, who serves as superintendent of the Marcus Whitman Central School District says graduation data is wonderful, but paints an incomplete picture. In fact, every superintendent we talked to shared that sentiment.

“Graduation rates really miss one huge thing, and that is the relationships that are built with all of the employees,” Brown explained. He says that’s true in any year, but especially during a pandemic, where isolation and remote learning has bolstered the importance of finding ways to connect and build those relationships. “Many students have felt isolated and have had mental health challenges during COVID – adults too – and being able to find support in their bus driver, food service worker, teacher, administrator, etc.. to me, has been just as important, if not more important than how they performed academically.”

Marcus Whitman, or the Gorham-Middlesex Central School District as it’s technically known, has a graduation rate that falls in line with a lot of other districts in the region. Over the last five years – the rate of students graduating from the high school there has hovered between 85-89%. That said, the district deals with a challenge that a lot of others in the region face: It’s rural.

For example, three schools of varying sizes could each have five students not graduate their senior year. Those five students represent 1.6% of the cohort in a class of 300, 3.3% in a class of 150, and 10% in a district with 50 students.

Some might be inclined to argue that a school with just 50 students graduating any given year should be able to give students more one-on-one time – leading to higher graduation rates. But they often face an even greater ‘budget crunch’ than their larger counterparts.

One such district locally is the South Seneca Central School District. Their graduation rate hovers around 90% at the moment. “Fifty kids in a senior class means that each single student represents 2 percent, so a few kids either counted or not counted can swing the percentages dramatically,” Superintendent Steve Zielinski said. “For rural schools that serve a significant transient population, where a kid might be in a school for a few months at a time before moving again, this means that we always see students counted in our data that we hardly got to know at all,” he added, pointing to the importance of building relationships, as noted by Dr. Brown from Marcus Whitman. Zielinski described it as a “one last shot” phenomenon, where students have bounced around different schools – and take one last shot at getting a diploma.

Zielinski says another big issue is how students are viewed as successful, or not, in the data from New York State. TASC credentialed students, or what used to be known as GED-recipients, are not viewed as ‘successful’ in the state’s data. “[It’s] recognized as a high school equivalency credential but doesn’t count on the graduation rate,” Zielinski explained. “We consider these students to be ultimately successful, but they look like ‘failures’ in the data. The same is true for those who don’t make it in four years but keep at it until they ultimately get their credential later, and that’s a significant number for us.”

It’s complicated, frustrating, and part of a broader problem for small school districts.

“For our hypothetical 50, it might be true that three or four drop out, and another five pursue the TASC while a couple take more than four years,” Zielinski continued. “When you add in the transient one or two that always appear, it all narrows in toward that typical 80 percent number that shows up on our data. We don’t need the release of the data to tell us anything we haven’t already known. I certainly don’t mean to be casual about this—we work hard for 100 percent graduation rate. For each that don’t make it, we can document hundreds and hundreds of hours of work to prevent it from happening.”

Superintendent Jeramy Clingerman says that in Seneca Falls they strive for 100% graduation rates, but that they dig deeper into the numbers before making any assumptions about success or failure. “We use the data from the sub-categories to determine possible changes to; pedagogy, program offerings, specific supports/interventions, how we are utilizing resources, etc.,” he explained. “We also look for patterns in areas such as attendance, behaviors, course grades, benchmarking and/or state assessment scores to determine what adjustments may need to be made to our Multi-Tier System of Supports (MTSS). We cross reference the graduation data for the many sub-categories with internal data to identify specific patterns and/or areas for improvement.”

The issue of graduation rate data painting an incomplete picture is a challenge, too.

“What the graduation data doesn’t tell you is how hard our students, families and staff are working,” he said. “It does not tell you the many difficulties students face and their perseverance to overcome them. What the data doesn’t tell you is how much we are in need of more resources and how our staff goes above and beyond to fill gaps to support our students so they can grow as learners and individuals, not only to graduate, but to go on after graduation and achieve success.”

Each of the superintendents we spoke with for this story felt different levels of concern for what would come next after the pandemic. “We are concerned about gaps in students’ ability to meet grade level standards, which become greater and greater as you move from kindergarten to grade 12,” Clingerman added. “With all students learning remotely last spring followed by the summer recess, there was a tremendous slide in students’ knowledge and skills when it comes to reading, writing and arithmetic,” he continued. “This is a result of what we were all thrown into. With the need to minimize classroom capacity and the number of students per classroom due to implementation of health and safety protocols, we had to use many of our staff differently this year.”

Providing additional support is a challenge. Especially when students and teachers are dealing with a partly- or at times- completely remote learning environment. “Our staff and students have grown tremendously in this learning model, but it still presents many challenges that our educational system continues to struggle with. As I stated previously, resources are limited and the pandemic has stretched us more than ever, but our staff is working harder than ever to meet the needs of our students- academically, socially and emotionally,” Clingerman added. “Our families, students and staff have made endless adjustments and sacrifices during this pandemic as we all continue to strive towards growth and success. A growth mindset and determination is more important than ever. Our process for analyzing data, to make adjustments where needed, so we can provide the best education and opportunities for our students will not change. We will continue to connect with and care for our students and each other so we can achieve growth and success together.”

Editor’s Note: If you want to check out graduation rate data from schools or counties, NYSED has a website for that. However, at time of publishing this story, their website was down. It’s unclear how long that outage will last, but you can continue trying the link. We will update the link when/if it changes when NYSED fixes the problem. [NYSED Data Site]