GENEVA, NY – Nestled in the heart of upstate NY, Geneva High School is home to approximately 750 students in grades nine through twelve.
Over the past three years, the school has seen a dramatic rise in its graduation rate of almost 20 points. To put this in context, “Graduation rates increased by more than a percentage point in 38 states between 2009-2010,” a report by the U.S. Department of Education, claims. Such a modest nationwide increase was considered impressive.
The question then becomes; how did Geneva achieve such a large increase?
Principal Greg Baker
New York State has what is called a “Focus” list, and it is comprised of schools that contain students who do not perform up to state standards. In order for these troubled schools to be removed from “restructuring status,” the state must see that their underperforming students attain state standards for two successive years.
In 2010, Geneva High School was put on this Focus list. The state claimed they were not meeting standards in their subgroups (Blacks, Hispanics, etc.), according to a report produced by New York State.
Following this report, the school made many changes. One of those changes was to hire Principal Greg Baker to replace William Rotenberg. Baker has been attributed with much of the turnaround the school has seen since 2010.
Rankings from top to bottom
In 2011, the graduation rate for all students hovered around 62%, according to new superintendent Trina Newton (elected in 2012). This past May, rates were around 81%.
Ontario County uses three quintiles to represent ranking of graduation rates in the district. Garnering a 62% graduation rate, Geneva today would sit 16% behind the lowest ranked school, and firmly in the bottom quintile.
With 81%, it ranks 16th out of the 25 schools in the county. This moves it up to the second level.
Geneva High School tops the charts for most diversity in the Ontario County district. With 36% of students not identifying as White, Geneva beats the second most diverse school, Lyons, by 16%.
This diversity statistic has remained a constant in the district throughout the years.
As seen in the graph, graduation rates statewide for the Black and Hispanic population reach just over 65%. In contrast, the White population is just shy of 90%.
Ethnicities by graduation rate
Given Geneva’s large minority population, coupled with state standards, it should be very hard for the district to attain high graduation rates.
For example, in the top quintile of schools in the district, the average of the eight schools is a 95% White population among students. The middle (excluding Geneva), is 94% White, and the bottom quintile is 88%. This trend shows that as the White population decreases, so does the graduation rate.
Interestingly enough though, Geneva ranks higher than schools like Romulus, Dundee, Marion all of which have less than 8% minority population.
Prior to Baker, just as expected based on demographics, Geneva sat at the bottom of the chart.
The bulk of the schools plan came from Principal Greg Baker who, according to Newton, “led the turnaround.” Through the implementation of several policies, he attempted to bring the school off the state’s “focus” list.
While these are only some of the policies Baker has established, they help to show the direction and standards he strives to hold the school to.
Ninth Grade Academy:
“Ninth grade academy offers an innovative approach to easing the transition from middle to high school,” reads the mission statement on the school’s webpage.
A typical Geneva High hallway during the day
The Academy puts all freshman lockers and classes in one hallway of the school, keeping freshman together throughout the day.
Research from the district shows that 25-45% of kids fail their freshman year across the nation. Convening in one hallway, the Academy has made it easier for teachers to find kids and help guide them with academic support through this transitional period.
Not just academically, but socially the research found that “freshman develop a negative view of themselves and feel an increased need for peer friendships.” Through being surrounded by peers each day, this need for friendship was encouraged.
Like most things though, there are aspects of this that are, “too good to be true.”
One student, currently a junior at Geneva High, recollects her time spent in the Academy. “The Ninth Grade Academy is a hallway designed for freshman students that holds their ‘core’ classes,” she says. “I however wasn’t in that hallway due to the four classes that I was taking.”
Her classes were part of the “Advanced” track at Geneva High. The advanced track is one in which students are selected by teachers as being more skilled than others. These students then take higher-level classes, in an attempt to fit in more AP classes upon graduation.
Due to her higher level, this student was separated from the bulk of her classmates.
This seems to bring up the larger issue of putting non-advanced students together. With all of the smartest students taking classes in other parts of the building, it would suggest there are no higher achieving students for the other kids to model.
Cell Phone Policy:
Along with the Academy, in 2011 a new cell phone ban was adopted as well. Before this, there were no real rules about cell phones in class. According to Baker, the new ban on phones has “significantly improved the teaching atmosphere,” he tells the Finger Lakes Daily News (FLDN).
Pre-ban: 700 incidents per year regarding cell phones
Post-ban: 150 incidents per year regarding cell phones
This ban was implemented prior to Newton, under Superintendent Bob Young’s administration. “Below the desk while attending to instruction, they’re texting, they’re communicating with other students, or their friends,” Young tells the Finger Lakes Times. He continues, “ We’re a school in restructuring, we need to be about teaching and learning, not social communication.”
During a board meeting regarding this issue there was nearly unanimous agreement. The only minor problems came from those concerned students would not be able to reach parents if they needed something.
Young urged these members to recollect a time before cell phones.
New Dress Code:
Assistant Superintendent Lawrence Wright
Following very closely after the cell phone policy came new dress code rules.
“We are working hard to set a standard of excellence in all that we do,” assistant superintendent Lawrence Wright, explains in a letter to parents. “One area that has been a point of focus is dress requirements for students. The Code of Conduct Committee met and agreed to revise our current dress code.”
Some of the changes include no more tank tops, no tight pants but rather “loose fitting jeans,” and no hoods on sweatshirts.
One student, who wished to remain nameless, talked about how the policy affected her while attending school. “My senior year I was forced to spend a large sum of money on new clothes because I couldn’t wear hoods. Apparently they are seen as a ‘threat’.” She follows up with, “Except every other Friday you could wear one if you paid a dollar, so they weren’t a threat every other week.”
This student was annoyed by the sudden wardrobe change, but that’s all it was, an annoyance. For others though, the change came as a real problem. This outlawed many sweatshirts, sweatpants, and similar casual garments. With 62% of students eligible for subsidized lunch, the lack of income in much of the district is apparent. Having to go out and buy new clothes could reasonably be seen as a hardship.
Increasing Instructional Time:
“Under the old ‘drop-day’ schedule, students would miss one day a week in each class,” Baker tells FLDN. “The new schedule means that teachers meet with their students every school day.”
Not only will this new schedule increase instructional time, it will also increase the amount of time teachers are able to meet with and watch struggling students. This way, if there is a problem teachers should be more conscious of it.
So far, this policy seems to work. It is straightforward and the time commitment of a school day has not changed for students, just the structure of a school day. This is a maximum efficiency policy.
With such a big leap in such a short amount of time, members of the community have had responses of skepticism towards Baker’s plan.
“My take is that the calculating has not been consistent,” a parent from the district says. “I believe there are multiple ways of calculating these numbers and in order to get help from organizations (state, government, etc.), you have to prove there is a need and then show that their money is helping so therefore you need to show improvement.”
“I’m afraid people manipulate numbers all the time,” she concludes.
At Hobart and William Smith, a sophomore on campus and active leader both in America Reads in the Geneva district, as well as Geneva2020, a program to help raise graduation rates, talks about the recent spike in rates.
“There has been no overwhelming staff or circular remodel, or implementation of external HWS resource aide, just bits of things that have fallen into place.” She continues, “I want kids to achieve, but are they really?”
She then offers some suggestions as to what could be happening. “Have we reduced necessary graduation requirements? Are we allowing at-risk students to drop out? Are we teaching to pass the test or to gain knowledge?”
Common Core Plan
While there are many skeptics concerning Baker’s rate increase, there is another factor to consider. Also in 2011, the first year of Baker’s plan, came the first year of the New York “Common Core” program. This program, often accused of “Teaching towards the test,” has also produced a steady increase of graduation rates around the state.
When contacted about the new standards and increase in rates, State Curriculum Advisor Mary Cahill did not know why such a jump would have occurred. “My best guess,” she says, “is that the district felt 62% was unacceptable and instituted initiatives to address this issue.”
She concludes, “Check the website or email the Superintendent.”
This led to the scariest part of the investigation, is the state even paying attention to Geneva High?