High school graduation rates continue inching up on Long Island and across the state, with greater-than-average gains for both black and Hispanic teens.
On the Island, 86 percent of students in the Class of '09 graduated on time in June compared with 85 percent the year before. The statewide rate rose to 71.8 percent from 70.9 percent, according to figures released Tuesday at an Albany news conference.
Some state education leaders voice disappointment that the overall pace of improvement has slowed in recent years. Locally, many school officials warn that a shaky economy and shrinking state financial aid threaten to throw recent progress into reverse.
"This year is challenging, it really is," said John R. Williams, the school superintendent in Amityville, where the diploma rate rose to 79 percent in June from 76.7 percent the previous year.
In recent years, Amityville Memorial High School has boosted achievement, by providing both small-group tutoring for teens who fall behind and college classes for those ready to forge ahead. But the district faces job losses next year, in order to hold property taxes to a reasonable level, and administrators worry about the potential impact on students.
A quality high school experience is "the only chance kids will have" to succeed in college and later life, said high school principal Scott Andrews.
Three Island districts where state authorities have recently intervened with reform efforts - Hempstead, Roosevelt and Wyandanch - saw graduation rates drop last year. Authorities in the three school systems expressed concern Tuesday, and said they were responding to the challenge with administrative and curriculum changes.
"We can't go on like this," said Charles Renfroe, president of Hempstead's school board. The district's high school has been the scene of sporadic student fighting, and the graduation rate dropped to 50 percent in June, down a point from the previous year.
One bright spot for the region and state: a better-than-average rise in diplomas awarded minority students, especially Hispanics. In June, graduation rates for Hispanics rose to 67.3 percent in Suffolk and 72.4 percent in Nassau, up from 64.8 percent and 69.5 percent, respectively, the year before. The statewide rate rose to 54.8 percent, from 52.2 percent.
Those successes are reflected locally in Hampton Bays, where about 40 percent of students are Spanish-speaking. In June, the district's overall diploma rate, including Hispanics and students of other ethnicities, climbed to 84 percent, from 79 percent the year prior.
Denise Lindsay, Hampton Bays' curriculum director, says her district in recent years has created both an evening high school and a summer school to keep more teens in class and on track toward graduation.
"You know, it's exciting, because at this level, you're changing lives," she said.