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Superintendents sound off on school rankings: Potsdam, Beaver River earn high marks while Brasher Falls, Watertown founder

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Some north country schools earned an “A+” while others barely mustered a passing grade in the latest edition of an annual report that ranks upstate New York public school districts, released Friday.

Area school superintendents are still absorbing the report, which is assembled yearly by Buffalo Business First, and looks at 429 school districts statewide. Rankings are based primarily on test scores, but the economic health of the area, experience of teachers, fiscal responsibility and other factors also are taken into account.

The publication looked at 33 districts in the Watertown area, which it defined as encompassing Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties.

The Potsdam Central School District earned the highest marks in the region and ranked 43rd overall among all upstate New York districts.

“This is certainly the type of list that we want our school district to rate high on,” Potsdam Superintendent Patrick H. Brady said. “Our staff and administration work very hard to create a program where our students could achieve despite the difficulties facing schools today.”

This is the third year that Potsdam has taken the region’s top spot, despite increasing financial woes.

“It has been very difficult, and we have cut over 50 positions and several programs, but through it all we have tried to maintain good class sizes and a variety of academic programs,” Mr. Brady said.

The district is considering a merger with Canton, which ranked third in the region, to help save costs and maintain services.

Mr. Brady attributed the continuing success to a persistent focus on graduation rates and dedicated parents.

“They support our school district, and they have high expectations for our school. They won’t accept providing less opportunity for students,” he said.

In Lewis County, the Beaver River Central School District had similar cause for happiness, landing in second place in the region and 73rd overall.

“We’ve always had high expectations for our kids. It’s a process of everybody coming together — everybody looking out for every student,” Superintendent Leueen Smithling said.

She praised her district’s administrators and teachers for their commitment to implementing the rigorous state-mandated Common Core standards over the last few years. She also cited the district as a model of making the most of a modest budget.

“There’s only about 40 schools that spend less money per student than we do, so for us to get these kind of results is pretty amazing,” she said.

The Thousand Islands Central School District took the top spot in Jefferson County, landing in fourth place in the region and 83rd overall.

“We’re very happy. It really goes to show the dedication and hard work of our teaching staff and administrators,” Superintendent Frank C. House said.

The St. Lawrence Central School District, Brasher Falls, had little reason to celebrate, ranking last in the region and 397th among the 429 schools studied.

“Obviously, the ranking is disappointing,” Superintendent Stephan J. Vigliotti Sr. said. “We want to do everything that we can do to improve it.”

Mr. Viglotti took over the district in March, replacing Stephen M. Putman, who retired early this year.

He said the school will begin a strategic planning process in November, gathering information to pinpoint and target its specific weaknesses.

“I’m still learning, becoming oriented to the district and the people and so forth,” Mr. Vigliotti said.

Watertown parents also have cause to frown. The Watertown City School District ranked third-worst in the region, ahead of only Brasher Falls and Edwards-Knox. It was rated worst in Jefferson County, and 372nd overall.

Watertown Superintendent Terry N. Fralick said he hasn’t taken a look at the rankings yet, and could not remark on his district’s low scores until he had.

“I haven’t seen it, and so at this point I would hesitate to comment,” he said.

No matter where their districts placed, the superintendents agreed that the rankings provide an incentive for improvement.

“The goal is to improve academic achievement. That’s the goal if you’re ranked 33rd or if you’re ranked first,” Mr. Vigliotti said.

Mr. Brady agreed, saying Potsdam’s high marks should not be taken as a sign that the district has reached the peak, but rather as an impetus for further progress.

“It’s nice to be on the list, but the standards continue to increase, with Common Core curriculum, for example, so we as a school district need to continue to work hard and focus our efforts on those areas of improvement,” he said.

The entire report can be found online at http://wdt.me/topschools.

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