NEW PORT RICHEY — Gulf High School principal Steve Knobl had an inkling that his school graduation rate was on the upswing when it came time to distribute commencement tickets.
His office received requests for about 250 more tickets than in past years. At five passes per student, that came to 50 added graduates from the norm.
"We ran out of tickets," Knobl said, adding he was surprised by the school's rate of improvement. "We far surpassed our goal in one year."
Now the Florida Department of Education has validated the numbers. Using the state's standard model, Gulf High had Pasco County's largest gain in graduation rates over the past year, rising nearly 9 percentage points to 88.7 percent. It also showed marked improvement under a second formula recommended by the National Governors Association.
The Pasco County School District posted an 87.24 percent graduation rate according to state standards, which are changing. The National Governors Association formula puts the county's graduation rate at 81.9 percent. Both are improvements over last year and above the state average.
"The biggest thing is just the influx of data and the ability to look at the data, look at the kids on a level that we've never looked at kids before in terms of their academic progress," Knobl explained. "We do things now that we've never done before and probably should have been doing a little bit more in the past."
Like many other Pasco schools, Gulf has instituted an early warning system in which teachers evaluate indicators for every student, such as grade-point average, absences and discipline. Each teen gets a rating on a scale that runs from "on track" to "extremely off track."
Those who need additional attention get it from a team that includes teachers, counselors and administrators. The students meet regularly with an adviser to review their progress and to make plans to get back onto the path for an on-time graduation.
"The key to all this is advisement," Knobl said. He praised the team of educators who keep after students to push for their success. "They just have this relentless attitude of not letting kids slip away."
Tina Wallace, one of two senior assistance teachers at Gulf, said she tries to make sure that each student assigned to her has access to the district's online grading system in order to keep better tabs on his or her own progress.
"They need to be responsible for their own grades," she said.
Because each student has different needs, Wallace said, the interventions differ. But the main thing is to monitor them and keep them on track for graduation.
Ridgewood High School, which is under state scrutiny for continued low performance, also showed significant gains in its graduation rate, rising 7 percentage points to 87.84 percent. A team of teachers, administrators, and district and state officials have worked more than a year to create a new culture of achievement at the school.
Changes have included learning labs for students to get extra help, credit recovery programs for students to make up failed courses and graduation coaches at all grade levels.
Principal Andy Frelick called Ridgewood's increase a step in the right direction.
"Our improvement is a reflection of the fact that our entire staff takes collective responsibility for ensuring student success," Frelick said. "We are working together as a team to provide the support our students need, and our efforts are yielding positive results. This is just the beginning of what I am confident will be a legacy of excellence at Ridgewood High School."
As a district, Pasco County showed strong growth in its graduation rate using both the state model and the formula recommended by the National Governors Association. Superintendent Heather Fiorentino said she was pleased with the result, but agreed there's more work ahead — particularly as the state moves to more stringent definitions of high school graduate.
"If even one of our district's 67,000 students falls short of this important milestone, there are severe ramifications for that child and our community," Fiorentino said. "We will continue our efforts to build upon this success until all children in Pasco County graduate prepared for the challenges of tomorrow."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.