JOE GENCO: Measuring schools differently

Joe Genco

Niagara Falls High School got some bad press last week. Sure, eight fights involving 21 girls seems significant. So does one young man posting a false media report that went viral because of an irresponsible web site sharing a fake photo.

That’s the way the world works in these times. In social media, reality is quickly distorted without regard for fact.

Of 50 school districts in Western New York State studied in 2019, Niagara Falls was 15th poorest, according to Syracuse.com, with 42% of school-age children living in poverty.

Here’s the kicker: Despite that challenge, Niagara Falls High School might be the best public high school in Western New York.

What? Have I gone off my rocker? Have you seen the Business First rankings?

I have not lost my marbles. As a matter of personal disclosure, my sons were educated in Clarence public schools and had an excellent experience.

But, they did not have the opportunities they would have received in the Falls.

In Clarence, there is no sense of diversity, culturally, economically or any other way. Nonwhite kids tend to come from wealthy families. There are also farm kids from less well off families on the north end of town.

Both of my sons went to large universities, Syracuse and the University at Buffalo, and had good experiences.

Our neighbor had two sons who also attended Clarence schools and took a different path. They both went to lineman school in Georgia and now work for NYSEG.

There are two ways to look at a large school. One is that a student will become just a number, fall through the cracks and be forgotten. The other is that having such a large, diverse population, if it is well run, results in more niches and more places where a kid can fit in.

Traditionally, that means athletics, theater department, chess club or interscholastic sports. My boys could have played football at Tonawanda or Newfane. They wouldn't stand a chance in the Falls. Five-foot-nine, 150 pounds, with average speed doesn't cut it. Every school has a certain sameness in its opportunities.

Niagara Falls is different, and better. It can mean a college prep program with college classes taught on campus by Niagara University, Daemen College and Niagara County Community College. It can also mean graduating from high school with two diplomas, including an associate's degree.

A district like Clarence or Williamsville pushes far too many kids on the “college is the only answer” path. That leads to misdirected students and big debt. They offer Advanced Placement classes that come with college credits. I don’t remember, however, actual college classes on campus.

Niagara Falls has begun assessing students at a younger age and offering a more rounded approach to guidance. It’s never "send the underachievers in 11th and 12th to BOCES and hope for the best." Instead, the process identifies students as early as middle school who may have a better aptitude for the trades than college. They begin honing those skills through in-school study with the help of unions and NCCC, have them job shadow, give them a running start on a rewarding career with an associate’s degree and a union apprenticeship upon graduation.

These are the sort of opportunities a school with the scale of Niagara Falls can offer that the “highly ranked” schools don’t because they are being measured by suburban white collar values where every kid gets pointed to college and alternatives are a shameful afterthought.

When you rank school districts by how students do on standardized tests, all you are really doing is feeding that school-to-college-to-debt pipeline. Reality, borne out statistically, is: districts with a higher percentage of two-parent families with college degrees produce kids who test better and end up ranked better.

While the Falls district does lose far too many students along the way — the 2018 dropout rate for students in K-12 was 8% — I believe that if you take the cream of Niagara Falls High and place it against the best-of-the-best from Williamsville, Clarence and other highly ranked schools, it will measure up.

All of that goes before we even touch on some of the other good things going on. For example, the school’s media club has its own TV station with professional camera equipment. I met two young men filming Superintendent Mark Laurrie’s press conference last week. The school also has a Starbucks franchise, and works with the Niagara Falls Community College culinary program and chef Bobby Anderson's F-Bites. There are probably even other things I don’t know about yet.

Will there be some nonsense? Sure. Will there be poverty, drugs and some of the negative things our community faces? All day long. The Niagara Falls Peacemakers do good work but they are needed for a reason. Heck, the school-to-prison pipeline remains a real thing.

But will the vast majority of Niagara Falls students have a proper path to a productive life? Certainly, and it’s getting better, not worse. Don't lose sight of that just because a miniscule percentage of students (21 of 1,890, and some may be innocent) have expressed a desire to be better acquainted with distance learning.

Joe Genco is the regional news editor for the Niagara Gazette and the Lockport Union-Sun & Journal. Contact him at 282-2311, extension 2250, or joe.genco@niagara-gazette.com.

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