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Watertown, Brasher Falls show low graduation rates

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Almost 40 percent of Watertown City School District students who entered high school in 2007 did not graduate four years later, according to the state Education Department.

Watertown (61.4 percent) and Brasher Falls (61.1) had the lowest graduation rates in the north country last year, nearly as low as New York City (60.9). The statewide graduation rate for students who entered ninth grade in fall 2007 shows that 74 percent received a diploma on time in June 2011.

The unwelcome statistic has Watertown officials poring over data.

“One of the things we're doing is we're looking at our data entry and seeing if we made any mistakes,” Watertown Superintendent Terry N. Fralick said. “This was a surprise for us.”

Mr. Fralick said he was shocked by the statistic because the district has implemented several programs to reduce the dropout rate, including ninth-grade teaching teams, a truancy program and a positive-behavior initiative in the younger grades.

This is not the first time the district has investigated its numbers. In September 2005, the district was reported by the state to have a 24 percent dropout rate, but the number improved after the district determined that some students were “miscoded” as dropouts when they actually transferred to another school district, which is common for military dependants.

Indian River Central Superintendent James Kettrick, whose district has an even larger military population than Watertown's, understands how tricky the data requirements can be.

“We have to establish they didn't simply leave,” he said. “The school they transfer to must request their records. Then you have a seamless record so the student can be tracked. The accountability is extensive.”

Indian River graduated 84.3 percent of its 2007 cohort on time.

Brasher Falls School Superintendent Stephen M. Putman also was not pleased with his graduation rate.

“The bottom line is, no, we're not satisfied with that. Clearly it's a disappointing number,” Mr. Putman said.

He said he expects his numbers to improve next year.

“We've been working on a lot of things over the last seven years,” he said. “We've put a lot more emphasis on reading in the elementary and middle school grades and nonfiction writing. Even, for example, the tests in mathematics and science now, it's so much different than they were, say, 20 years ago. Just reading and understanding questions requires higher literacy skills.”

Other than tracking transfers, districts also have other statistics to worry about when tallying graduates. When students graduate with a general studies diploma or even graduate a year before their classmates, they are counted against the school.

“Sometimes the numbers you see are deceptive,” Harrisville Central Superintendent Rolf A. Waters said. “I personally feel the GED should bear more credit. Those exams are not easy.”

His district graduated 67.6 percent of the class of 2011 last June, the lowest for Lewis County. He blames the small size of the school for the numbers.

“When you talk about a cohort of 34 students, you could be talking about 31 out of 34 students,” he said. “For us, our GED students might be three, but they significantly reduce the graduation rate.”

There was a downward graduation trend for the 17 schools in St. Lawrence County. St. Lawrence-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services Superintendent Thomas R. Burns said he was not surprised by that. He agreed with many of Mr. Waters's statements about graduating students from small, rural schools.

“One issue we have is such small graduation classes that it really skews our numbers. One student can really improve or bring down the graduation rate,” Mr. Burns said.

A concern of the BOCES superintendent was the declining amount of state aid the county schools have received in the past few years. St. Lawrence Central eliminated four teaching positions. Other districts in the three counties have cut up to 50 positions in three years. Also cut have been enrichment opportunities that draw students to school daily.

“Many of our districts are cutting programs and cutting staff,” Mr. Burns said. “These are programs that keep kids engaged. You risk it when you take those things away.”

Johnson Newspapers writer Bob Beckstead contributed to this report.

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