High school graduation rates are up in Florida, Tampa Bay
In a year of painful cuts to stem hundreds of millions of dollars in reserve fund losses, Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins never lost sight of a goal that sometimes drew laughter: A 90 percent high school graduation rate by the year 2020.
On Friday, that target came closer to reality. The state released 2015-16 numbers showing 79.1 percent of Hillsborough students who were scheduled to earn diplomas in 2016 did just that.
That’s more than a 3 percentage point jump since 2015, pulling Hillsborough — which used to lag behind other districts — even with Pasco County.
Pinellas County celebrated a milestone of its own, with a graduation rate that surpassed the 80 percent mark at 80.1.
“I’m very pleased,” said Pinellas school superintendent Mike Grego. “What that’s saying to us is the systems and processes in place are working.”
Hernando had a jump as large as Hillsborough’s, to 81.1 percent. That’s better than the state rate of 80.7, which marks a 2.8 point improvement over 2015.
“I am proud of Florida’s students for their outstanding achievement, even as the bar has been steadily raised,” Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart said. “These results are a testament to their hard work and the benefit of Florida’s accountability system.”
In Pasco, the improvement was minimal at a half a percentage point, from 78.6 to 79.1 percent.
Even before the numbers were released, spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said “our superintendent has been wanting to make sure our graduation enhancement teachers are focusing on graduation enhancement. They sometimes are pulled to do other tasks for their schools.”
State officials touted improvement over the last five years among minority, disabled and low-income students. But a closer look shows those gains are not consistent across counties.
Hillsborough’s graduation rate for black students improved by 6 points over the previous year, from 63.5 to 69.5.
Two high schools in Hillsborough with large black populations showed gains that were even more dramatic: from 64.5 to 72.5 percent at Armwood High, and from 65.7 to 74.7 at Middleton.
Pinellas — which, like Hillsborough, is the subject of multiple discrimination complaints — showed less than a 1 point improvement in black graduation rates, from 64.6 to 65.5 percent.
Pinellas’s white graduation rate rose from 82.2 to 85.1, fueling the overall improvement.
One exception to the trend was Boca Ciega High, which graduated 90.1 percent of its black students but only 88.9 percent of its white students.
“We realize we have a lot more work to do with our African Americans in particular,” Grego said. “It’s just a work in progress.”
In Hillsborough, Eakins said the improved numbers illustrate his commitment, and that of the School Board, to helping children holistically instead of focusing strictly on their academics.
“As much as our school system is about imparting knowledge on our students, we are in the business of changing lives,” Eakins said. “Our graduation rate shows me we care about each child.”
Hillsborough’s strategy includes a system of tracking students beginning in the ninth grade, and a student success program to help with interpersonal issues and struggles at home that affect a student’s school work. Grego has implemented similar steps in Pinellas.
One source of help has been the Student Alliance for Public Schools in 12 high schools. The grassroots organization surveys students about barriers to graduation, pairs them with peers and helps them work with administrators toward practical solutions — for example, making tutors available during the school day so transportation is not a barrier.
“It’s not just a matter of giving them representation,” said Melissa Erickson, who oversees the group. “These kids have become part of the leadership at the school.”