GULFPORT — Ask Michael Vigue if he has ever been in the military. It's a question he's heard a thousand times. Sometimes it's brought on by his clipped sentences. Sometimes it stems from his specific, authoritative instructions on matters such as where to park when you get to his school. But the principal of Boca Ciega High has never been to war, unless you count his time as assistant principal at a middle school, and some might.
He says, "I'm a very controlled person who tries to make sure what happens is as predictable as possible."
What happened at Boca Ciega is that the graduation rate rose from less than 62 percent to 85 percent in two years. This past year alone, according to numbers released this month, the graduation rate spiked up 10 percentage points. Among all other Pinellas high schools, the next highest gain was 4 points. Some dropped.
Superintendent Michael Grego said he will be studying Boca Ciega's results to see what lessons can be applied districtwide.
If this type of success is a "predictable" result, then it raises the question: What was the plan of attack?
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She was a good student, a personable kid who looked you in the eye when she spoke. But she started missing class on Mondays and Tuesdays and her grades felt the impact. Her teacher didn't have time to investigate, but did send an alert.
Just a few years ago, Boca Ciega set up an internal forum where teachers can submit an electronic red flag about a student. Scott Mason, the "multi-tiered system of supports specialist," gets them. Depending on the problem, he directs the student to the school's psychologist, social worker or to himself.
In this case, the girl was working late hours at her family's store over the weekends, making it tough for her to get to class with her work done when the school week began. Her parents hadn't realized how much she was falling behind, Mason said. She stopped missing class.
"The big key from our perspective is keeping kids in the game," Mason says.
It sounds so simple, but it's this obsessive attention to the details of each student's life that keeps each individual on track to graduate, says Vigue, in his fourth year as Boca Ciega's principal.
They rake over attendance data.
At-risk students get mentors who follow highly scripted academic advising.
Each student gets a plan.
Using the school's internal database, teachers communicate about students they share — what this kid was receptive to, what another couldn't stomach.
Says Vigue: "When you have an open dialogue about what's working and what's not working, you can get resources to the student quicker."
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This is all to say that Boca Ciega loses kids.
Most high schools do. There are many things one can do as a teenager that may appeal more than sitting in a classroom.
The trick is getting them back.
Over the past three years, Boca Ciega has retrieved dozens of students who dropped out, re-enrolling them and getting them on track to graduate.
In the school's database, Vigue and his staff monitor withdrawals.
When a student says she is going to an alternative school, they follow up and make sure that happened.
Vigue and Mason and all the staff call when they can. When no one picks up, they go to the home. "I call them fishing trips," Vigue says, because often they end up knocking on doors where no one lives.
Rita Vasquez, the Pinellas County Schools executive director of high schools, says Boca Ciega has been more successful at bringing back students than most other high schools. She's looking to Boca Ciega for districtwide applications.
"One of the things we're taking a look at is how can we get that word out? … When we lose students, what are the efforts we can make? I think the sky is the limit." Boca Ciega, Vasquez said, "went into the community and reconnected with kids they lost."
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Is it possible to keep up the graduation rate growth next year? Can Boca Ciega maintain such a spike? Won't it drop?
"If you know Mr. Vigue at all, that simply isn't going to happen," Vasquez says. "Tenacity is at use here."
When you show up at Boca Ciega, the hall monitor who finds you in the obscure parking lot shakes his head as you insist this is where Vigue told you to park. "I'm sure he did."
Inside the classrooms, recent graduates are talking to students about their transition to college, the military, even the workforce if that's what they want to do after high school. It's a program Vigue began last year, to keep his students focused on the future.
"Once you're done with high school, with college, it's game on. No one's going to hold your hand in the real world," Ameriga Villamaria, 19, tells a classroom. She graduated in the spring, part of the 85 percent.
Still, every year there are a few students that Boca Ciega can't find. When no one picks up the phone, when no one answers the door, when the fishing trip to the lost student's home is over, it's never really over. They'll go from home to home, Vigue says. They'll call the social workers. They'll leave their cards. Every year there are a few students he can't quite find. He logs into his computer. He looks for them on the Internet.
These students had a plan when they went to Boca Ciega, he says. It's hard to see a plan go unfollowed.
Contact Lisa Gartner at [email protected] You can also follow her on Twitter (@lisagartner).