Graduation rates rose in Florida for the ninth straight year, and most school districts in the Tampa Bay area saw increases as well, according to data released Tuesday by the Florida Department of Education.
But the state continues to lag nationally, and the area's two largest school districts have some catching up to do. Hillsborough's rate, 76 percent, was the lowest among Florida's seven largest counties. And Hillsborough and Pinellas ranked last and next-to-last, respectively, among those counties for black students' rates.
Statewide, 77.8 percent of students graduated in 2015 within four years of their first enrollment in ninth grade, a 1.7 percentage-point increase since last year and an 18.5 percentage-point increase since 2005. The data do not include students who earn special diplomas, GED-based diplomas, certificates of completion or those who might have been retained.
Overall, there was good news for minority students statewide. African-American and Hispanic students' graduation rates increased 3.2 percentage points and 1.7 percentage points, respectively, from 2014. The groups' rates rose 9.3 percentage points and 7.3 percentage points, respectively, over the past five years. Male and female Asian students on average have the highest graduation rate — 90.8 percent.
But despite its gains, the state remains far behind the national graduation rate, which was 82.3 percent in 2014, the latest year available. The U.S. Department of Education ranks Florida in the bottom 10 states for graduation rates.
Locally, Pasco County led the area for the fourth year in a row with a graduation rate of 78.6 percent, a slight decrease from 2014.
District spokesman Spencer Pylant credited the district's streak to its credit recovery program and its Student Support and Assistance Program, which closely monitors at-risk students' attendance and academics. The district also has "graduation coaches" at every middle and high school.
As for the decrease: "We see that as a motivating factor," Pylant said. The district is awaiting more detailed data to identify areas in need of improvement, he said.
Pasco was trailed by Pinellas County (78.3 percent), Hernando County (78 percent), Citrus County (77.4 percent) and Hillsborough County.
Despite lagging behind other large counties in key areas, Hillsborough did see the biggest improvement in the bay area over the past year. Its overall graduation rate increased 2.5 percentage points, and it was second to Pinellas in terms of gains among black students in the area.
District spokeswoman Tanya Arja said teachers and administrators contributed to Hillsborough's improvements. She said many initiatives put in place by new superintendent Jeff Eakins aim to get the district up to speed, including a "ninth-grade on track to graduation" program to monitor attendance, academics and behavior, and an emphasis on teachers and staff advocating for students.
Pinellas saw the most improvement over five years compared with Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties, rebounding from a rate of 65.2 percent in 2011. Pinellas also holds the second-highest overall graduation rate among large metropolitan districts in the state.
But while its graduation rate for black students jumped 3.9 percentage points in the past year from 60.7 to 64.6 — the largest bump in the bay area — the increase was smaller than those of other large districts.
Pinellas superintendent Mike Grego touted the district's summer programs, summer boot camps and extended learning programs as the reasons for the gains. He said the district will place more emphasis on student engagement with career academies and higher-level courses.
"I'm thrilled at the progress that we're making," he said. "There's still a lot of work to be done, but the fact is our African-American graduation rate has excelled and has improved at a much more rapid pace than others."
Researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Colleen Wright at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.