Topping U.S. News and World Report’s list of best schools in the greater Cortland area this year are Tully, Homer and Cortland.
The numbers, released April 27, provide external indicators of how well a school district is doing, based on areas such as math and reading proficiency along with the percentage of students who graduate after arriving as freshmen.
More so, the numbers can help provide insight to the quality of life in a community through areas such as the quality of college or work-ready students a school produces.
The scores were based on six metrics from 2018-19, so they don’t reflect what may have happened during the coronavirus pandemic. They count graduation rate, math and reading proficiency and performance, underserved student performance, college readiness — the share of high school seniors who took or passed Advance Placement or International Baccalaureate exams — and college curriculum breadth, based on the proportion of seniors who took multiple college-level exams. The scores were based on a national percentile ranking, so a school with a score of 75 did better than 75% of other schools.
However, intricacies, such as student involvement in extracurricular activities, can be left to the wayside and not show the full image.
School districts, though, will keep pushing to improve.
“Even if things are good, are they the best they can be?,” said Doug VanEtten, the principal of Homer Central High School.
NUMBERS IMPORTANT BUT SO IS CHARACTER
Part of the success of Tully High School students comes from the variety of options of courses students can take, said Superintendent Robert Hughes, including dual-enrollment courses as Tompkins Cortland Community College and Onondaga-Cortland-Madison Board of Cooperative Educational Services.
“If they have more paths of what they want to pursue, they’ll have more success in education,” Hughes said.
As for classroom work, Hughes said that teachers and administration spend time in the summer making sure the transitions from grade to grade and curriculum to curriculum is as seamless as possible and that grade levels realistically build on each other.
Hughes also said the district’s high ranking is due in part to the high expectations families have for their students.
“I think that helps, too,” he said.
Small class sizes — each grade typically has 67 students — can help with student success as well in being able to have more flexibility in tailoring work to student needs, Hughes said.
While the 2021 rankings are based on data from the 2018-19 school year, Hughes said future rankings may be harder to gauge as state Regents exams were canceled both in the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years because of the pandemic, as were other assessments like final exams.
What doesn’t show up on the rankings, though, is student character. Hughes said students in his district are very involved in community service and extracurricular activities.
“I think it’s almost as important that when they leave us they’re good people,” he said.
A WAY TO IMPROVE
For Homer Central High School, the rankings provide a good evaluation from an outside source of how the district is doing, VanEtten said.
“Obviously we’re always looking to do the best for our kids,” he said.
The high school doesn’t design classes and curriculum to be recognized by news outlets, but said it was good to know the district was doing well.
A part of this is encouraging students to challenge themselves academically, including setting goals for students who are willing to take at least one Advanced Placement course or college-level course in high school, he said.
Like Hughes, VanEtten said student success is also based on students pursuing a curriculum that interests them, including courses in the Career and Technical Education program through Onondaga-CortlandMadison BOCES, including auto collision, construction and graphic communications.
The rankings are useful for gauging where the district can improve as compared to other similar and different districts, VanEtten said, such as graduation rates.
The district has a 95% graduation rate for the 2021 rankings — the share of ninth-graders in 2015-16 who graduated in 201819.
VanEtten, while happy with that number, said he’s always working to get the graduation rate to 100%.
But also like Hughes, while the numbers are important, they don’t show the whole picture.
Areas such as work experience gained during school can never be quantified, he said.
“It’s a people business and the number and statistics are important,” VanEtten said. “But we also have to remember the people involved.”
QUALITY OF LIFE
The quality of a school district is important for a community specifically businesses — for two reasons, said Bob Haight, president and CEO of the Cortland County Chamber of Commerce:
- It can help attract young professionals looking to move into an area. The professionals may be looking for good schools for their kids.
Because of that, Haight said he’ll talk with prospective workers about the districts in and around the county, especially their high school graduation rates and college readiness.
- The quality of a school matters as they produce the next generation of workers.
“We want our schools doing a good job and keeping students local,” he said.
For students who leave after high school, say to go off to college away from the county, it can be a good sign for them to return.
Not all students, though, want to go to college, which means high schools must prepare students for a career, Haight said.
Understanding that, the chamber hosts an annual Manufacturing Day event for area high schools to get students to learn more about local jobs in manufacturing and elsewhere, Haight said.
The 2020 version was canceled due to the pandemic and one in March was virtual, but Haight said the chamber hopes to host an in-person event in the fall.
How successful a student is, though, may come down to the students themselves, Haight said.
“Our schools are not going to rest,” he said. “They’re going to make sure students are well prepared.”
A USEFUL MEASURE?
The magazine’s rankings can be used outside school districts, too, said David Little, the director of the Rural Schools Association of New York State. Industries like real estate can use the rankings as a way to attract buyers into a community.
“Everyone wants to have a good school for kids when they’re moving into an area,” he said.
It can also be a good way to build a community’s self-esteem, if their schools scored well, Little said.
However, disparities between districts — especially rural and urban districts — can make rankings like those of US News and World Report more complicated than they appear on paper.
The top 10 ranked high schools in the state this year are all in New York City, which has lots of people, more funding and the ability to create specialty high schools.
Rural districts upstate don’t have the same resources, Little said.
“It truly is a sad circumstance in our state because their future isn’t in rural New York anymore,” Little said.
Lower populations upstate have meant that state funding focuses on more populated districts downstate. For districts like those in and around Cortland County, that makes comparing themselves to wealthier, better funded districts more of a reach.
“If you’re talking about who’s making the most out of what they have, it’s not going to be the same list,” Little said.
A more realistic ranking list would be based on the kind of area a district is in, such as clustering urban, rural and suburban schools in their own categories.
The list does provide specific lists for best charter, magnet and Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics schools, along with best overall, but doesn’t break down the way Little suggested.
Rural school districts are “masters of creativity” when making due with less, Little said.
For districts in and around Cortland County to rank higher would be a Herculean task.
Unless rural school districts receive more state funding, and the state changes how districts receive funding, “it’s kind of difficult to jump ahead of the pack,” Little said.