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Long Island graduation rate up to 89.1%, well above state average of 81.2%

Newsday senior education reporter John Hildebrand spoke Thursday about the continuing uptick in graduation rates across Long Island and New York State. (Credit: Newsday)

High school graduation rates for the Class of 2019 inched up on Long Island and statewide, as did percentages of students earning advanced diplomas, according to results released Thursday by state education officials.

Across the Nassau-Suffolk region, the percentage of students graduating on time in four years rose to 89.1% in June, compared with the previous year's rate of 88.4%. That was well above the state average, which increased to 81.2% in 2019 from 80.4% in 2018, Newsday calculated from state data.

The Island's graduation results have hovered around 88% and 89% for five years running.

The state has moved to a new system of measurement, which focuses on students graduating in August as well as earlier in the academic year. The state previously focused on June graduations, and Newsday's calculations continued to do this, for the sake of uniformity. By either count, statewide gains in overall graduation rates for 2019 worked out to 0.8%.

In recent years, the state has taken steps to help more students graduate — for example, by allowing students to appeal failing exam scores to district superintendents.

Improved results were especially welcomed in the 7,600-student Hempstead district, which has come under scrutiny from Albany, in part because of low achievement in previous years. Hempstead's graduation rate, while still low, jumped to 57.1% for 2019, up from 44.3% in 2018 and 36.7% in 2017. 

"I applaud our students, parents and educators for their hard work and dedication that led to these increased graduation rates," Stephen Strachan, principal of Hempstead High School, said in a prepared statement. "We look forward to the continued progress of our students, as well as this year's budget and fiscal support from the state that will allow us to continue the programs and structures that we have in place."

Another bright spot was the number of students obtaining Regents diplomas with advanced designation, which signify solid preparation for college. To earn such credentials, students must take advanced courses and state exams beyond required minimums — for example, in subjects such as geometry, trigonometry, chemistry and physics.

On the Island, there was an uptick in the share of students with advanced diplomas: 53.7% in 2019, from 53.4% in 2018. Statewide rates increased to 33.5% from 33.4%, Newsday calculated. 

"It's great to hear that the region continues to maintain its high achievement, which is an expectation of the Long Island community," said Nicholas Stirling, superintendent of the Valley Stream 30 district and president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents. "With that said, the work at hand remains that students not only graduate, but take full advantage of the opportunities they have at hand."

The point, Stirling added, is that some students must be coaxed to take advanced coursework that they might initially have thought was beyond their abilities, not only in high school but in the middle grades as well. 

In the Shoreham-Wading River district, for example, school administrators said they have made a concerted push in recent years for students to complete by the end of eighth grade Regents-level algebra courses normally taken in the ninth grade. The goal of such accelerated studies is to give students an opportunity, should they choose, of completing a series of math courses culminating in calculus by their senior year. 

Gerard Poole, the district's superintendent, noted the percentage of seniors there with advanced Regents diplomas rose to 70.1% in 2019. This represented a gain of about 20 percentage points over five years, he added. 

"That became a real focus for the district and community," Poole said. 

A continuing issue for the Island and statewide, however, is the gap in achievement between districts rich and poor. Disparities are especially obvious in the numbers of teens earning advanced Regents diplomas. 

Top-achieving districts for 2019, as usual, included Garden City, where 90% of students won advanced credentials, Jericho, with 89.4%, and Rockville Centre, with 89.1%. At the bottom were Roosevelt, with 5.9%, Wyandanch, 7.6%, and Hempstead, 9.1%. 

Experts who have looked into school systems where achievement is low have concluded that poverty is a major factor. A Newsday analysis, published Sunday, found that the Island's wealthiest districts outspend the poorest by more than $6,000 per student.

Alan Singer, a Hofstra University professor who has followed ups and downs in the Hempstead district for years, observed that the system's struggles have been aggravated by an outflow of some of the community's strongest academic students to neighboring independent charter schools. 

"What you have is a district with declining resources having to grapple with students with the greatest need," Singer said. "So the fact they got their graduation rate up is significant. But without additional state investment, they will not be able to address the needs of their students." 

In Albany, state education officials noted the latest gains in graduation rates, while slight, were significant when combined with earlier increases. Since 2010, such rates have improved by an overall 7.3 percentage points, those officials said.

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