VALRICO — A tough new federal formula for measuring high school graduation rates may have some SouthShore and Brandon parents up in arms and others tickled pink.
School officials, however, are cautioning against either reaction, saying communities need to take a closer look before reaching any conclusions.
Graduation rates at county high schools are expected to drop when the state adopts federal Department of Education guidelines this year. A state Department of Education study showed graduation rates dropping across the board in Hillsborough County when the federal yardstick is applied.
However, while other high schools in Brandon and South Shore are expected to experience a 10 to 20 percent decline in graduation rates, Bloomingdale and Newsome should show very small drops.
Bloomingdale's graduation rate is projected to fall only 1.8 percentage points to 90.3 percent (the smallest decline in the county). Newsome's should drop by only 3 points to 96.4 percent under the federal guidelines.
Then there are the graduation rates at Armwood and Plant City, expected to fall more than 20 percent under the new guidelines.
Brandon, Durant and East Bay should see a drop of more than 10 percent.
The countywide public high school graduation rate for 2011-2012 is projected to fall from 84.3 percent to 69.3 percent under the new guidelines.
Florida has used a National Governors Association model to calculate graduation rates since 2006. The Department of Education is adopting the stricter formula to abide by a 2006 vote by the state Legislature calling for tougher measurements to be in place by this year and comply with federal accountability standards.
Supporters hope the new guidelines will increase accountability and produce more accurate graduation rates.
"The older state rate did inflate high school graduation rates because if a student dropped out and enrolled immediately in a GED program, the graduation rate was calculated as if that student had never attended that high school at all," said University of South Florida education professor Sherman Dorn, who has studied school accountability issues.
"Some schools were relying on that dropout-rate-to-GED path as a way not to be responsible for a number of students. The graduation rates will highlight those schools and they will have to clean up their act."
Newsome, an A-rated school for six of the past eight years, is the top high school in the county and No. 19 in the state, according to the Florida Department of Education's school ranking system. Bloomingdale, a B-rated school, is also among the best in the county.
And it's not just the high achievers collecting diplomas. Newsome graduated 82 percent of its at-risk students in May, tops in the county. Bloomingdale graduated 65 percent of its at-risk students, fifth-highest in the county, according to the state Department of Education. Students who score a Level 2 or below on the reading and math portion of the FCAT in eighth grade are defined as at risk.
So what is Newsome doing differently that makes it the top high school in the county?
Nothing, said Carla Bruning, Newsome's principal.
"We don't have a magic pill or a magic class here," said Bruning, who took over at Newsome in 2010 after six years as the King High principal. "I do the same things here I did at King High School.
"The students at Newsome are highly motivated by their parents. They come early or stay late if they need tutoring. Here, high school is merely a stepping stone to what they plan on doing for the rest of their lives. I don't have any special programs; it's the parents. They really believe in having their kids in school and going to college. There's a college-going culture here."
Statistics tell part of the story at Newsome and Bloomingdale.
Newsome has the lowest rate of students eating a free or reduced-price lunch, just 15 percent. Bloomingdale has the fourth-lowest rate in the county, 28 percent. The percentage of poor students at both schools is also relatively low: 14.4 percent at Newsome and 26.8 percent at Bloomingdale, according to DOE figures for 2010-11.
The percentage of poor students at neighboring high schools such as Brandon (47.9 percent), Plant City (55 percent) and Armwood (63.6 percent) is much higher.
Newsome also has few English Language Learners, 23 as of last May. Bloomingdale had 80.
Working with individual students helps makes the difference at Bloomingdale High, said principal Mark West.
"It's not strictly demographics, but that clearly does contribute to it," said West, an educator for 26 years, the last six at Bloomingdale. "We are doing the same things every principal at every school is doing: drilling down data to every student to figure out what that student needs to graduate to get them college-ready. We also have strong school pride and tradition here."
Like other schools, teachers and staffers also home in early on at-risk students, assigning mentors and tracking grades.
"We try to get down to the individual student's needs," West said.
Kevin Brady can be reached at email@example.com.