Florida's high school graduation rate continued to climb last year, even after state officials dropped students with GED degrees from their count.
Minority students showed the biggest gains, though white students still graduated at a higher rate, a report released Friday shows.
Counting students of all ethnic backgrounds, 76.3 percent graduated within four years of entering ninth grade, up 3 percentage points from the 2007-08 school year and 6 points from the year before that.
With one exception, Tampa Bay area school districts showed even larger gains.
• Hillsborough County schools improved on an already solid record, graduating 82.2 percent of its students in 2008-09. That's tops among Florida's large counties and up 5.2 points from the previous year. "I'm very pleased. We work very hard at this," said Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia. "But I'm still concerned that we're losing kids. We all need to work harder.''
• Pinellas County's graduation rate improved 5.8 points to 77.2 percent, following a 5.1 point jump the year before. In just two years, Pinellas graduation rates have swung from significantly below the statewide average to slightly above.
• Pasco County's rate rose 4.4 points to 77.8 percent. That, too, now beats the statewide average.
• Hernando County fared less well. Its graduation rate rose 1.1 points to 75.4 percent, following similarly anemic improvement the year before. With other counties showing bigger improvements, Hernando now falls below the statewide average.
These positive trends set off a predictably glowing reaction.
"Florida's education system continues to be a rising star in our nation,'' Gov. Charlie Crist said in a statement. "Our teachers and school leaders should be commended for their extraordinary effort."
The Jeb Bush Foundation credited the former governor's accountability system: heavy on standardized testing and school choice.
"The results are indisputable,'' said foundation director Patricia Levesque. Before Bush's educational changes, she said, the previous eight years were "marked by a 7 percent decline.''
Pinellas and Pasco officials were particularly pleased. For years, their graduation rates lagged noticeably below the statewide average, so they started homing in on kids who were falling behind and likely to drop out.
Pasco County appointed a director of graduation programs.
"We now have a graduation enhancement program that is phenomenal,'' said Pasco superintendent Heather Fiorentino. "We are striving to get every student across that stage."
Wiregrass Ranch High (90.1 percent) and Pasco High (89 percent) had the county's highest graduation rates. With a 73.3 percent rate, Hudson High had the lowest.
For the last few years, Pinellas has been tracking every student's progress with color-coded charts from the minute they enter ninth grade. When grade-point averages fall below 2.0 or students' credits lag, officials refer them to programs both inside the school and out to help get them back on track.
"They have to stay on grade level,'' superintendent Julie Janssen said. "We found that if they get so far behind in the ninth grade, by the 10th grade they gave up. We lost them mentally as well as academically. If you keep on them early, the chances of graduation really significantly increase.''
St. Petersburg Collegiate High (98.4 percent) and Palm Harbor University High (97.3 percent) ranked highest in graduation rates, but Lakewood High had the largest increase, rising 14.4 points to 85.5 percent.
At 69.5 percent, Dixie Hollins had the lowest graduation rate of regular Pinellas high schools.
Some of Florida's biggest gains were among minorities.
African-American students graduated at a 64.9 percent rate, far below the white student rate of 83.1 percent.
But while white students improved their rate by 2.3 points last year, African-Americans added 4.1 points.
Hispanics graduated at a 72.1 percent rate, up 4.5 points from the previous year.
These differences were more pronounced in Pinellas, which is under court supervision dating back to school desegregation.
Graduation rates for black students in Pinellas have typically been among the state's lowest.
In 2008-09, the county's black graduation rate was 60.6 percent, more than 10 points below any other Tampa Bay county.
But that number has climbed 16.8 percentage points in just two years — nearly twice the state's rate of progress and better than any other area district.
Pinellas' rate of improvement is also far better than any of Florida's other six big urban districts.
"We are way further than I had anticipated we would be at this point," said St. Petersburg community activist Watson Haynes, who co-chairs a group that advocates for black students. "If you had talked to me a year ago, I would have said, 'Ha ha, joke, never going to happen.' "
He credited Janssen for making achievement of black students a bigger priority and setting a higher bar for progress. He pointed to the legal agreement she helped engineer last summer that promised the district would focus more on the achievement gap between black and white students.
In the past, Florida has been criticized for including students with GED degrees in its graduation rates. Figures this year excluded GED degrees. To maintain an apples-to-apples comparison, figures for past years were also adjusted to exclude GEDs.
Times staff writers Ron Matus and Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report.