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High school graduation rates increase in Florida, Tampa Bay

Florida's graduation rate surged to a record-high 79 percent this year, up nearly 3 percentage points from last year, according to numbers released Thursday by the state Department of Education.

The gains were strongest among black students (up from 64.9 to 68.4 percent) and Hispanic students (up from 72.1 to 75.3 percent.)

"Our reform efforts are making a difference," Gov. Charlie Crist said in a written statement.

Around Tampa Bay, the news was especially good for the Pasco and Hernando school districts. Pasco's rate rose from 77.8 to 81.9 percent; Hernando's from 75.4 to 79.0 percent.

Hillsborough's rate inched up from 82.2 to 82.3 percent. But it continued to outpace the state's six other big urban districts.

Pinellas' rate climbed from 77.2 to 77.7 percent, a modest gain after two years of big jumps. But it fell below the state average and its ranking fell relative to other big districts. Pinellas is behind Hillsborough and Palm Beach, in a tie with Broward and ahead of Miami-Dade (at 72.1 percent) and Duval (at 66.6 percent.)

On the flip side, several Pinellas high schools, led by Dixie Hollins and Gibbs, had reason to celebrate.

Both schools have struggled so much that they fell under increased state oversight this year. But Dixie's grad rate improved a muscular 11.5 percentage points, to 81.0 percent, while Gibbs' jumped 9.4 percentage points to 81.8 percent.

"A lot of hard work went into that," said Gibbs principal Kevin Gordon, noting the school hired a graduation coach last year to make sure borderline kids stayed on track.

Some education experts say the state's numbers should be taken with a grain of salt.

Florida's calculations are at odds with other widely circulated estimates that conclude the state's rates are much lower. Until last year, Florida was accused of padding its rates by including students who earned General Educational Development diplomas, better known as GEDs.

The latest calculations, based on a formula recommended by the National Governors Association, do not include GEDs. And the state insists its numbers are more sound than estimates because it actually tracks individual students.

But, some critics contend, Florida's numbers are still woefully off because they don't count thousands of struggling students who transfer into adult-education programs — and often drop out.

According to state figures, 14,924 students were put into that category during the 2009-10 school year, including 1,088 students in Pinellas, 2,129 in Hillsborough, 712 in Pasco and 104 in Hernando.

On Thursday, districts weren't getting tangled up in the technical minutiae.

"We're not where we want to be," said Hillsborough school district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe, "but our graduation rate is still the best in the Tampa Bay area and among other large districts."

In Pasco, six high schools — Land O'Lakes, Wiregrass Ranch, Pasco, Zephyrhills, River Ridge and Sunlake — topped the 90 percent mark. Meanwhile, Gulf High improved from 79.8 percent to 88.7 percent and Ridgewood went from 80.2 to 87.8 percent.

The staff uses a variety of data — including grade point average, attendance and classroom performance — to determine whether students are on track, said assistant superintendent Ruth Reilly. Those who need extra help get guidance as well as different courses, including courses that allow to recover credit.

"It's about the teachers and their caring and working as a team," said Pasco superintendent Heather Fiorentino. "The children feel that impact."

Times staff writers Jeffrey S. Solochek and Tom Marshall contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com.

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High school graduation rates increase in Florida, Tampa Bay 11/18/10 [Last modified: Friday, November 19, 2010 10:05am]

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