DADE CITY — Xavier Siller could have become a high school statistic, and he knows it.
"I wasn't paying attention in class. I wasn't going to class," explains Xavier, an 18-year-old senior at Pasco High School. "I really didn't care. I wanted to hang out and have fun, really."
Nothing his mom and dad did to change his habits made a difference. Peer pressure and sheer laziness prevailed.
Until Xavier caught the wrestling bug, and his teachers and coaches caught wind of it. They gave him the opportunity to get into the sport if he would start attending class, bring up his grades and focus toward graduation. They kept after him through summer school, night school and after school programs.
Now wrestler Xavier has passed the FCAT, increased his grade-point average above 2.0 and set his mind on college.
"They're on you all the time. They make you get your work done," Xavier said of his teachers. Without their attention, "I would probably be out there right now, just fooling around. … It's a lot better going to school."
His story is not unique — not for Pasco High School or for Pasco County. The latest graduation and dropout rate statistics released by the Florida Department of Education prove it.
The district dropout rate continued to decrease, from a high of 4.2 percent in 2005 to 1.2 percent for 2009. The district graduation rate, which tracks the percentage of students who graduate within four years, showed similar improvement.
Pasco County's rate rose from 76.5 percent in 2005 to 83.5 percent in 2009 using the state's longtime method, which counts all types of diplomas including GEDs. Using a newly adopted uniform national rate, which counts fewer types of diplomas, the county's 2009 graduation rate is 77.8 percent, which is up 7.6 percentage points from 2005.
In each calculation, Pasco County outperformed the state average.
Superintendent Heather Fiorentino heaped praise upon Ramon Suarez, the school district's supervisor for graduation programs, whom she brought in five years ago to improve the district's graduation and dropout rates.
"We now have a graduation enhancement program that is phenomenal," Fiorentino said. "The entire team has worked remarkably hard. No matter what the standards, we are solidly increasing. We are striving to get every student across that stage."
Suarez pointed to Pasco High as a case study for the improvements. Until recently, the school consistently had one of the county's worst graduation rates.
In 2001, the school graduated just 64.4 percent of its students. That rose to about 72 percent for the next few years before dipping back down to 67.7 percent in 2007. In 2008, Pasco High saw 86.5 percent of its seniors graduate — second-best in the county.
This year its rate was 91.3 percent using the state method, or 89.0 percent using the uniform national rate. That's a virtual tie for tops in the county with Wiregrass Ranch High.
"It is the whole community involved in this school," Suarez said.
Teachers, administrators, counselors and staff all spend time working to keep kids on track, helping them find paths to success whether tutoring, night school, extracurriculars or whatever else it takes, he said.
"When they see that everybody cares, that's when students do make the connections," Suarez said.
Taking small steps
Cindy McCarthy is Pasco High's student support and assistance program coach. She's the person teachers call when they have identified a student who needs a little extra attention and guidance to make it through.
She chases them down — "I feel like a bounty hunter sometimes," she said — and works to help them figure out how they can find success in school.
Sometimes it means changing student schedules so they're in the proper classes rather than floundering and failing. Other times, it's nothing more than showing she cares and is paying attention to their progress (or lack of it).
"It's important to really talk about what they want to do in the future," said intervention counselor Alicia Vega, who takes on the toughest cases, trying to persuade students who have decided to drop out to try one more time. "A lot of times, they only see what is going on here and now."
The school needs to get them to dream a little bit about where they really want to be in a couple of years. Then, Vega said, they bring in the reality.
"We let them see, 'I can do it. I only need to take these small steps,' " she said.
Several other factors have come into play.
The school adopted a participation policy that bars students from activities and extracurriculars if they miss too many days in a month or a quarter. That helps keep attendance up.
It has started holding monthly Hispanic parent nights, where educators talk to parents about different aspects of the school. Officials say turnout has been "huge" and growing, with a traditionally underserved group now being drawn more into the fold.
That has been key, as Pasco High's Hispanic enrollment has risen to 28 percent. Along with that, it has become less itinerant, meaning the families are getting more involved in school activities. And as research shows, involved students tend to put more emphasis on their academics, principal Pat Reedy said.
The school's focus on research-based teaching methods dovetailed nicely with the district's move to Learning Focused Strategies, which meant the school didn't have to change instructional direction. There is continuity at the top — Reedy has been at the helm 10 years — and many teachers have set their roots here.
"Everything started to gel together," Reedy said.
More important than anything, he said, is the school's focus. It's not on decreasing dropout rates or increasing graduation rates or improving the school's state grade.
"We're focusing on improving student achievement," Reedy said. "We are constantly finding ways and resources to make them successful."
Seeing the real world
Senior Lauren Ellis will attest to that.
The 17-year-old remembers entering Pasco High as a freshman who "thought I knew everything."
She thought she could drop out of high school, go to adult classes and somehow get right into college. Nobody could dissuade her of that view.
Then 10th grade rolled around, and she was filled with attitude but staring at D's and F's, missing credits and a lackluster future. McCarthy approached Lauren and encouraged her to come to her class. It didn't take long, Lauren said, to figure out "I was being stupid."
McCarthy prodded her to perform in class. She helped find a senior project mentor when Lauren couldn't find one on her own.
"I know when I really put my mind to something, I can do it," Lauren said. "But I really need someone to push me."
Now Lauren is a half-credit ahead, has passed the FCAT and looks forward to becoming a psychologist.
"If I didn't meet Mrs. McCarthy, I probably would have dropped out and wouldn't do anything," she said. "I think she makes kids open their eyes and see the real world."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.