LAND O'LAKES — On the subject of dropouts, Pasco County schools superintendent Heather Fiorentino turns out to be more right than she knew.
During her re-election campaign, Fiorentino touted the district's 37 percent reduction in the dropout rate as a reason to vote for her. She was talking about raw numbers of dropouts, though, instead of the rate and the Times called her on it in a Politifact item.
Now the Florida Department of Education has released the official 2007-08 dropout rates and, wouldn't you know it, Pasco's actually did decrease by 40 percent, from 3.5 percent to 2.1 percent.
That's five percentage points better than the state rate and lower than neighboring Polk and Hernando counties.
The good news wasn't limited to an improved dropout rate. Pasco also saw its graduation rate increase from 73.7 percent to 79.5 percent, higher than at any point in the past decade. Pasco's graduation rate in 1998 was 63.5 percent.
Fiorentino laughed when given the news, and quickly praised the staff and students for their successes.
"The staff has made the students realize their potential and what they need to do. This is teaching success patterns for the future," she said. "I'm really proud of the efforts that the staff have made. ... This isn't easy for students either."
Pasco has a dozen programs aimed at keeping students in school through graduation. One of the critical pieces is the implementation two years ago of a tracking system designed to help educators better follow students they consider at risk of dropping out, said Ramon Suarez, supervisor of graduation enhancement.
Even that name, "graduation enhancement," is part of the initiative, Suarez added.
"No one wants to be in dropout prevention," he said. "We teach students that need different alternatives to graduation. They don't need to be tagged with a negative program name."
Statewide, the dropout rate went down by 0.7 percentage points, while the graduation rate rose to 75.4 percent — its highest level ever and 15.2 percentage points above where it was 10 years ago. Improvement was evident in every demographic group, according to the Department of Education.
"These results reinforce the tremendous academic progress our students have made over the last decade and prove that Florida is home to some of the best teachers in the nation," education commissioner Eric J. Smith said in a news release. "It is vital that we continue to build on our progress by elevating the expectation for our children and preparing them with the skills they need to succeed in today's global economy."
Fiorentino, a former dropout prevention teacher, agreed that the work is not finished.
"Next year there's a new group of students," she said. "There's new challenges as we move forward."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.