TAMPA — Trying to improve Hillsborough County's lagging graduation rate, acting superintendent Jeff Eakins started with a question: What is keeping kids off the stage? He pulled data on the 26.5 percent of students who were high school freshmen in 2010 but did not get diplomas in 2014 — everything from state test scores to how many times they were suspended. Among the findings: Holding students back a year doesn't work. Sixth-grade reading scores are a bellwether for success. And your grade-point average in ninth grade is a pretty good indicator of whether you will go the distance. "In the short term, we have to do something very intentional about how we track our students' credits and success in ninth grade, and what supports we can provide them," Eakins said. "It's all about keeping them on track in that first year or two in high school." At the same time, he said, the district must look closely at the other transition years — third grade, when high-stakes tests get under way, and sixth grade, when children make that often-abrupt adjustment to middle school. Months before he inked the contract last week that starts his two-year term as district leader, Eakins described the graduation rate as "a call to action" and vowed to address not just graduation day, but the day after.Hillsborough's rate is 73.5 percent, which lags large Florida districts and others in the area. The state average is 76.1 percent. Nationwide, an estimated 81 percent of kids graduate from high school, and federal officials want it to 90. "We have to get engaged with our kids all throughout their schooling," Eakins said, suggesting the district needs to free up guidance counselors, who often spend much of their work on chores other than counseling."We've got to get all of our support systems in place early on or they're never going to be set up for success later on." The analysis Eakins did of the Class of 2014 is a snapshot, but a detailed one that offers hints at how to improve. Melissa Erickson, an education advocate who worked with high school students this year as part of the GradNation project, said the data confirm things teens have told her. "The numbers that I've seen clearly show that there are some holes for kids who don't take traditional paths to graduation," she said. Specifically, she said, students preparing for blue-collar careers get waylaid by credit recovery classes they must take after they fail a standardized test. The classes are often taught in computer labs without the instruction kids need when they don't understand basic concepts, and they block students from taking electives that might keep them in school and help them in their careers. Credit recovery classes "are just more barrier they see and one more place where they feel they're being pushed out," Erickson said. A recent change in state law could help, as it gives districts flexibility in that area.Erickson and her students polled 2,000 teens, using open-ended questions. Two key issues emerged in addition to the need for a less punitive credit recovery system.One, students said they could not find supportive relationships at school. "The high-stakes testing environment took the personal element out of education," Erickson said. "They didn't have time to have relationships with teachers or their peers."While some schools bring in mentors, she said, students "don't want people from outside the system coming in to build relationships for them. They want those relationships with the people they see every day." The other issue: gaps in counseling. Students said they needed more help making plans for school and life after school."They told us the first time they meet one-on-one with a counselor is in their junior year," Erickson said. "Most of their decisions have been made at that time."School Board Chairwoman Susan Valdes did her own research two years ago, interviewing students from Town 'N Country area schools who earned certificates of completion but not diplomas.Some were blocked because they could not pass the reading portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test in the 10th grade. While the system allows them to take the ACT test instead or stay in school a fifth year, they were not always aware of those options. And Eakins' research confirmed another of her findings: Many students were steered into adult education when they reached 16, and few wound up with diplomas.Valdes said she is looking to the new administration to address these issues. "I'm so excited about the direction where we're going," she said.Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected] Follow @marlenesokol.