LAND O'LAKES — For much of the past decade, Land O'Lakes High School has outperformed most other Pasco County high schools on the measures the Florida Department of Education uses most.
It earned A's and B's from the state, while most other schools received B's, C's and D's. Its graduation rate rose fairly steadily, with a few small blips, besting the others each year since 2005.
While the school's grad rate remained relatively stable at 89.1 percent under Florida's long-time calculation method, the state's adoption of a new, nationally accepted uniform rate dropped Land O'Lakes High's graduation level to a less-than-shiny 75.9 percent — closer to the bottom than the top of the county's high schools.
That only stands to hurt Land O'Lakes as the state moves to a new grading system that places a higher premium on graduation rates. They will account for nearly 20 percent of a school's grade next year, compared with not counting at all right now.
What's happening at Land O'Lakes — and to a lesser extent at Gulf and Hudson high schools?
The new graduation rate formula does not include students who complete the GED exit option program as true graduates. And Land O'Lakes has had significant participation in that program since its inception, serving central Pasco seniors who otherwise did not have enough credits to graduate on time.
Hudson and Gulf also offer the program, but their graduation rates didn't slip as much when accounting for those students.
Jim Davis, assistant superintendent for high schools, rated the program among the "most beneficial to kids" that local high schools have to offer.
"We want all kids to graduate with a standard diploma," Davis said. "But at the same time, you need to offer programs to kids who may not go that traditional route."
Students in the General Educational Development exit option program are seniors who lack enough credits to graduate on time. The district aims to hold them to a rigorous standard nonetheless, said Ramon Suarez, supervisor of graduation enhancement initiatives.
The students still must pass the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test or an alternative, finish their required classes (usually online), have a job or be enrolled in a technical/career program and complete the GED.
"They are not being successful in the regular high school," Suarez said, "and we need to have different programs in place for them to be successful."
The last thing the district wants to do is say "too bad" to these students and let them drop out, Davis said. That would only increase their chances of ending up in the juvenile justice system, statistics suggest.
"We don't want that to happen in Pasco County," Suarez said. "We are doing something to help them be successful in life. That is what matters."
Still, the district is cognizant of the financial penalty it faces if Land O'Lakes or any other high school falls short.
So officials are investigating alternatives to the GED exit option that would allow students to stay on track to get a special diploma, while also staying true to the concept that some students simply don't do well in a mainstream general education high school.
One of the top options is accelerating the district's credit recovery program, which allows students to remain in their regular high school but take monitored online courses where they work at their own pace. Schools would work to get struggling students into such a class well before senior year, "so fewer students get to that point," Davis said.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.