By Ryan Franklin
FULTON — Fulton City School District officials say they know there’s work to be done in improving the district’s graduation rate, but there are also things that are working well at the district.
Figures released by the state Education Department earlier this month showed that Fulton’s graduation rate had dipped to 69 percent in the 2015 academic year, down from 76 percent in 2014.
However, Elizabeth Conners, executive director of instruction and assessment for the district, said that there were mitigating factors within the data that show some bright spots.
“There are pockets of things that we’re not happy with, but there’s also some pockets where there’s some things where there’s some growth,” Conners said.
Board of education President David Cordone said the board was paying attention to the graduation issue and looking at what they could do to help the district improve.
“I think the message certainly that we would want the community to know is that we are paying attention to the grad rate,” Cordone said. “Everything is not where we want it to be, but we’re making progress is the message.”
One of the struggles the district faced was an increase in students classified as homeless or “unaccompanied youth,” defined as children not in the custody of a parent or guardian, under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.
Engaging these students was a problem for the district, and was reflective of the issues facing the community as a whole, Conners said.
‘We know we have a lot of work to do,” Conners said.
One of those factors mentioned by Conners was that students who took longer than the traditional four years to graduate were not included in the graduation rates released by the state.
For example, when accounting for students from the 2014 academic class that took an additional year to graduate, the graduation rate rises to 80 percent, which complies with the United States Department of Education goal, according to data provided by Conners.
Superintendent Bill Lynch agreed with Cordone, and said that it was a good sign that the district was able to get students who take extra time to stay in the program.
“We certainly agree that we continue to have a lot of work to continue to support all of our students. We’ve seen progress in some areas and some other areas that continue to be a challenge for us,” said Lynch. “The fact that kids are still connected with us and moving forward to meet the requirements, that’s a positive.”
The next step to keep improving graduation rates, Conners said, was to examine what measures the district could put in place to retain students who struggled in school. Approaching the issue from a pre-kindergarten through 12th grade perspective was essential, Conners said.
“We’re looking at graduation rate as a (pre-kindergarten-12th grade) issue, so we’re looking ultimately at where do we need to put more interventions in place in order to make all of our students successful,” Conners said.
For the younger grades, that meant continuing with programs like the community schools that offer fifth- through eighth-graders afterschool tutoring and activities.
In high school, struggling students were assigned individual teachers to connect with them and check on their progress. That might mean a teacher calls a students at home if they don’t come to school for a day, or checking in to offer extra help after a bad test.
Conners also said that compared to other demographically and economically similar cities, like Auburn, Cortland or Rome, Fulton was performing better in some areas like graduating students with disabilities or non-economically disadvantaged students.
Particularly, for the 2014 academic class, Fulton graduated 90 percent of students not from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, compared to barely more than 80 percent for Auburn, and less than 60 percent for Amsterdam.
That isn’t meant to excuse performance issues in other areas, Lynch said. Rather, it helps to highlight that there’s still work to be done, like working to make sure economically disadvantaged students get the same support they need.