B y Jaime Thomas and Derek Liebig
A Buffalo business journal has ranked Granville and Whitehall school districts as among the poorest performing districts in Washington County, and in the bottom 10 to 20 percent in upstate New York.
Buffalo Business First ranked 430 school districts across 48 counties in upstate New York (districts in New York City and Long Island were not ranked) and the results, which were released last month, do not look favorably upon the two local districts.
The rankings place Whitehall as the poorest performing district in the county, the second consecutive year it has received that designation, and 398th overall. Granville was ranked eighth out of 10 Washington County school districts and 360th overall.
“I hope that we could do better in the future,” Superintendent Mark Bessen said. However, Bessen does not see the article as accurate or current news.
“The test scores are the same as the July and August information we’ve already read and made available to the school board and the public,” Bessen said.
Although he hasn’t had an opportunity to look at the rankings, Whitehall Superintendent James Watson said he recognizes from the scores on standardized tests that the district typically does not do well on the rankings.
“We recognize we need to improve and that’s something we addressed with the faculty on the opening day of the year,” Watson said.
Hartford fared slightly better on the rankings and was rated as the fifth in the county and 301st overall.
Thomas Abraham, superintendent of Hartford Central School district, said Hartford’s rating was better this year than last and he thinks it will be great if the district continues to show improvement.
“Our test scores are good. Am I pleased with them? Yeah. Can we do better? Yes,” said Abraham.
The rankings are reflect the collective academic performance of each district from kindergarten through 12th grade and are based on standardized test data and graduation rates provided by the state Education Department from 2008-11.
A district’s graduation rate makes up 10 percent of the rating, students’ scores on Regents exams make up another 50 percent and elementary and middle school test scores make up the final 40 percent.
Schools with a current enrollment of less than 260 students were not included in the survey.
Granville Principal Jim Donnelly agreed with Bessen that data used in the study is probably dated. However, he still thinks it is important.
“Should we pay attention to these things? Absolutely,” Donnelly said. “We see the challenges we have and we’re working to rectify those issues.”
Bessen admits there is a need for the district to improve. District-wise the school continues to employ research based classroom instructional practices and has begun working on professional development.
“We’re focusing on instructional methods using data to guide instruction, and we’re working with a staff developer,” Bessen said. He said the school is especially focusing on elementary math and English language arts and also math at the secondary level.
“We’ve had some challenges this year and last year that we’re trying to address,” Donnelly said. In addition to staff development, the school is examining different types of instruction and scheduling in order to improve.
Whitehall has also taken steps it hopes will lead to improved results in the classroom.
Like Granville, Whitehall has introduced more professional development for its staff, especially in the areas of reading comprehension and math.
The district has also restructured the schedule of its middle school students so there is more time spent on math and English. It is looking at a new textbook series and will continue to enroll its poorest-performing students in an academic intervention services program that provides additional instruction.
“From what I’ve seen this year, the teachers are doing more with less. I’m optimistic that that the teachers have so far answered the bell. I’m confident that they are rising to meet the challenge,” Watson said.
Besides rating the academic performance of each district, the journal also examined administrative efficiency, teacher pay, and socio-economic factors, which were particularly revealing.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the publication rates Whitehall and Granville near the bottom of the county in “affluency,” which measures the relative wealth of a district and is based on the number of students eligible for free or reduced lunch, the percentage of students living below the federally designated poverty rate, and combined wealth ratio, measure of property and income wealth in the district.
The findings suggest that the relative wealth of a district correlates with academic performance.
Only Fort Edward had a lower “affluency” rating than Granville, while Whitehall was ranked fourth in the county. More than 42 percent of the students in each district are eligible for free or reduced lunch and the “youth poverty rate” is approaching 20 percent in both communities.
“We need to recognize that we are all similar types of schools. We have similar students from similar socio-economic backgrounds,” Watson said.
He said those students are facing other problems because of their backgrounds that can make learning more difficult.
“Environment plays a critical role.”
Interestingly enough, Whitehall and Granville were ranked at the bottom of the county in terms of the teacher pay, but Bessen said that information isn’t up to date.
“The average pay listed on the website is wrong; ours is higher than the paper,” said Bessen.“Last year the teachers took a pay freeze; this year they took two steps, so that data is old.”
Future Hartford Superintendent Andrew Cook said the article, along with others that were similar, indicate that the school is moving in the right direction. However, he believes these types of ratings do not consider all the factors, including as a district’s socio-economic climate that also contribute to school performance.
“You’ve got to look at those rankings with a grain of salt,” Cook said. “The tough part about them is that you’re very pleased when you do well, but you also want to do better.”