Niagara Gazette — It's almost impossible to have a conversation about education without bringing up the Common Core Learning Standards.
New York state, like many other participating entities in the federal government's latest involvement in education, has been met with heavy criticisms from parents, teachers and administrators over the demanding lessons and reliance on standardized testing it brings to the classroom.
Niagara Falls is no different, though its leaders say they can't afford not to keep implementing and developing the new model even in the less-than-perfect situation it finds itself in.
"I'm perplexed by the method the state's using to get its students college and career ready," Superintendent Cynthia Bianco said Thursday. "But we cannot sit back, though, and wait for the state to get its act together. The data is telling us we can't wait."
The data she speaks of is damning of a school district already falling below or barely meeting state averages in graduation rates and student performance. It turns out, through extrapolating numbers from a nationwide study of college professors indicating how many students they see are college ready coming out of school districts, only about 32 percent of Falls students who graduated in 2012 fit the bill.
The numbers are even worse for the district's African-American community, according to district officials, which report about 20 percent of its black students, one of its most populated demographics, enter college or careers with the basic skills in both English Language Arts and mathematics learned. It's only slightly better at 39 percent of white students meeting the goal, though it's noted these figures include graduates the district is responsible for but may not have educated due to special needs or disabilities.
While it's looking bleak, there may be some light at the end of the tunnel, district officials said. In the last major overhaul of education, Niagara Falls went from having respectable scores to plummeting through the basement. The district quickly recovered, though, and was posting positive gains. Now, after this past spring's tests came back with disastrous results for students in grades 3-8, it could be looking at rebounds when students finish what could be a much more realistic examination experience.
"Math, in particular, was very frustrating across the state," Marcia Capone, the district's administrator for assessment, said. "This year, the last resources were released by the state. Last year, there were times where there was nothing for us to give the teachers."
One of the biggest challenges the district faces moving forward in common core instruction, according to Administrator for Curriculum and Instruction Richard Carella, is going to be the knowledge gap caused by the massive rollout of the new standards the state has forced on its school districts.
He said a fifth-grade student this year, for example, would have the benefit of going through a Common Core-aligned school year this year. But unlike the fourth-grade student a year below him, when he takes the fifth-grade assessment, he won't have the benefit of a fourth-grade-aligned education. And the Common Core standards focus heavily on progression through multiple grades with students showing growth determined to be the most important aspect in performance.
"There's a lot of things he'd be unfamiliar with," Carella said.
Overall, Carella said, the district's taken a baby steps approach to the common core. The district is fully compliant from kindergarten through eighth grade, with some attention put on high school math classes meeting the new standards, as well, he said. But when it comes to exactly what is being taught day-to-day, there's less involvement in what the state's provided.
Carella said only a few of the state's "modules," or curriculum outline, have been adopted, while teachers have been busy adapting what they've previously taught to meet the higher expectations.
It's causing some confusion and, admittedly, there are problems, school board President Russell Petrozzi said. But the district needs to move forward despite the concerns.
"There's so much going on in education people aren't aware of," he said. "We're in the midst of significant change in a very short amount of time. As a district, we need to move forward."
In other district news, a final tally of votes in Wednesday's special election to allow the district to sell a number of properties to various buyers was made official during Thursday's school board meeting.
Broken down into four separate proposals, a total of 873 people cast a vote, the lowest turnout for any election since 1992.
Proposal one, which called for the sale of the former administration building and warehouse at Sixth Street and Walnut Avenue to Housing Visions Consultants Inc. for $20,000 total, received approval by a count of 732-140, including 126 absentee ballots.
Proposal two, to sell the former South Junior High building to CB-Emmanuel Realty for $66,000, was approved 698-182. Proposal three, to sell numerous parcels on Jerauld and North Avenues to the city, was accepted 734-134. The fourth proposal, to sell Legends Park near Abate Elementary to the city, won 735-132.
"By far this is the best thing for our city," Petrozzi said. "Hopefully these properties can be developed and be used much better than they are right now and we can stabilize these neighborhoods."Contact reporter Timothy Chipp at 282-2311, ext. 2251 or follow on Twitter @timchipp.