Graduations have never been more bittersweet.
Nearly 7,000 Pinellas County high school seniors will smile proudly this week as they're handed their diplomas. But while it's worth lauding their accomplishments, it's also worth highlighting this stark fact:
Over the past four years, one-third of their peers fell by the wayside. And at some schools, nearly half did.
Since 2004, the class that started out as the sixth-largest in the district's history — 12,000 strong — has lost about 5,200 members. That's more than the number of students at two large high schools.
Some moved away or transferred to private schools. Some are taking longer than four years to graduate. But there's no denying that a huge percentage dropped out. Or that the numbers are more grim for students who are poor, minority and male.
Pinellas high schools are hardly alone. An analysis last fall by researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that 51 percent of Florida high schools had graduation rates below 60 percent.
The state push
To boost the numbers, state education officials are encouraging more students to take rigorous advanced placement courses and making career and technical education a bigger part of the curriculum.
The Legislature also passed a bill this spring that will change the school grading formula to include graduation rates, with the expectation that more focus on those rates will spur strategies to improve them. Gov. Charlie Crist is expected to sign the bill into law.
State officials also continue to bank on the hope that success in early grades, especially in reading, will lead to more diplomas later. To that end, the state is preparing more diagnostic tools to help teachers better pinpoint where struggling students are falling short, so they can get more targeted help.
Pinellas officials say they're taking steps of their own to improve the graduation rate here, which last year rose very slightly from 67 percent to 67.3 percent.
Cathy Fleeger, an assistant superintendent in charge of high schools, said district leaders decided this past year that high school reform isn't enough. What's needed, Fleeger said, is a total high school redesign.
"We asked every school to design what we're calling a pyramid of interventions," Fleeger said. "We're having every school look at students who might fall through the cracks."
Beginning in January, schools began compiling a graduation cohort report, a tool principals and guidance counselors can use for monitoring student progress.
The district also expanded its options for performance-based diplomas. Kids who are behind in credits yet are able to pass the FCAT and the GED test now are eligible for a standard diploma.
Fleeger acknowledged it could take years for such efforts to reap rewards. But already, she's hopeful.
"I'm feeling very good for the first time that we have a handle on who's in danger," she said.