After three years of disappointing numbers, Pinellas County's graduation rate took a sharp turn for the better last year, rising 7.1 percentage points to 74.4 percent — the highest in at least a decade.
The stunning increase, revealed in state data released Wednesday, was among the biggest of all Florida districts and far larger than any of the other six urban districts.
The gains were even more dramatic at individual high schools.
Seven posted double-digit increases, including a 28.6 percentage point spike at Dixie Hollins High, a 19.3 percentage point increase at Dunedin High and a 19 percentage point increase at Osceola High.
"That's outstanding," Pinellas Park High principal John Johnston said when told how big a jump his school made. "I believed they would be up, but I didn't expect them to be up 11 points."
District officials credited a combination of factors, including better data, better student tracking and better steering of students needing credits to classes after school, at night or online.
"People could tell you by name who the kids were, what they were doing for each child," said superintendent Julie Janssen. "It really was a herculean effort by the principals."
Elsewhere around the Tampa Bay area, Hillsborough's rate moved from 79.1 to 80 percent. Pasco's climbed from 73.7 to 79.5 percent. Hernando's went from 75.1 to 76.9 percent.
The state rate climbed to a record high 75.4 percent, up a muscular 3 percentage points from the year before. The rates for black and Hispanic students rose 3.8 and 3.1 percent, respectively.
"I am so proud of our schools, teachers, and students for this tremendous achievement," Gov. Charlie Crist said in a statement.
Since peaking at 70.8 percent in 2004, Pinellas' graduation rate has been a black eye for the district, having fallen or been stagnant in the last three years.
Pinellas has been especially stung by comparisons with Hillsborough, which boasts a higher graduation rate despite a greater percentage of low-income and minority students — who tend to struggle more — and lower-paid teachers.
After the rates were released last year, former superintendent Clayton Wilcox immediately called a meeting to find out why the gap between the two districts was widening. A plan began to take shape.
Administrators developed a color-coded system for keeping track of juniors and seniors. Students listed in green were on track to graduate on time. Those in yellow were behind by one or two credits and those in red were way behind. Principals and teachers were required to know the status of all their seniors.
"They were able to really see quickly which students were in danger of not graduating if they didn't do something quickly," said Barbara Thornton, associate superintendent for high school programs.
The district also cleaned up its system of coding students in its data processing system. Before, the district sent its graduation data to the state, principals, assistant principals and data preparation clerks combed the numbers for mistakes.
"They found some lists that were not complete," said Thornton. In the past, "We were sending a report up (to the state) and kids were missing."
One other factor: The School Board equalized the graduation requirement across all schools at 24 credits. Previously, schools with 4-by-4 schedules needed 29 credits to graduate.
It's not clear how many students may have benefited from each of the individual changes. But Janssen credited Wilcox for adding urgency to the issue.
"It was good to see that the hard work of so many people was starting to pay off," Wilcox said Wednesday night. "A lot of folks in Pinellas said, 'You know what? We're tired of talking about it. Let's just do it.' "
At the state level, Florida has long had one of the worst graduation rates in the nation, and it's not likely that even a big, one-year jump would change that.
The state's numbers are also far higher than estimates generated by a number of credible education researchers — a disconnect quickly highlighted by critics of the state's accountability efforts.
Rep. Marty Kiar, D-Davie, a member of last year's House Schools & Learning Council, said the numbers generated by the Florida Department of Education are "fluffed up" because they include diplomas through GED testing, widely considered inferior to standard diplomas. GED tests accounted for 2.5 percent of Florida graduates last year.
While Florida has been criticized for including such diplomas, it has also been praised for a sophisticated student tracking system that DOE officials say allows them to calculate an exact graduation rate rather than an estimate.
It's also true that while many researchers conclude Florida's rate is among the worst, one of them — the research center connected with the highly regarded Education Week newspaper — determined that Florida's rate was one of the fastest rising.
According to DOE, Florida's rate is up 15.2 percentage points since 1999.