WESLEY CHAPEL — Kareem Bennett struggled with his teacher's instructional style in his world history course.
"He set us on our own," said Bennett, an 18-year-old senior at Wesley Chapel High School. "I'm not one of those types of learners who just reads something and understands it."
He failed, and just like that fell off-track for graduation. The school's new student tracking system caught him quickly, though, and got Bennett into a credit recovery program that has him back on the path to an on-time diploma.
"It feels nice," he said last week, while working on a computer-based lesson.
Initiatives such as these are popping up all over Pasco County, and the results showed in the state's 2010-11 report on graduation and dropout rates.
Pasco's high school graduation rate increased to 85.5 percent of students graduating on time, up from 67.8 percent just four years earlier. It ranked third best among the state's 12 largest school districts, behind Seminole and Brevard counties. Four years ago, it ranked seventh best in that group.
Notably, the district did not see a significant drop-off in the graduation rates of minority students in comparison to white students, unlike most districts large and small. Pasco's graduation rate was 86.6 percent for white students, 81.1 percent for black students and 85.5 percent for Hispanics.
Statewide, the differences among demographic groups were in the double digits.
At Wesley Chapel High, one of Pasco's most diverse schools, the achievement gap mirrored the county's at just around five percentage points. The secret, teachers said, is an intense focus on each individual regardless of background.
"Every kid is different," said graduation enhancement resource teacher Pam McLaughlin. "That's the special need right there."
McLaughlin started in the position five years ago with one other teacher. In the past two years, principal Carin Nettles expanded the team to include a third graduation enhancement coach, focusing on freshmen and sophomores, and an intervention guidance counselor who works primarily with struggling upperclassmen.
The school also added a lab for students to take credit recovery courses, as well as a separate lab for virtual instruction.
"Carin Nettles has allowed us to do what we are hired to do, helping students who are off-track to graduate," McLaughlin said. "Without that, we would have had a very tough time."
Together, the educators work to track every student's progress, regularly updating them and their parents as to what they need to do to graduate on time. Summers are time for graduation plan meetings, which aren't always filled with easy messages.
But the initiatives are working, assistant principal Tim Light said.
"You go into the classes and you see the (previously struggling) kids working for the teachers," he said. "You know how they used to be."
He added that the teachers and counselors communicate more frequently with one another about the students, which helps keep everyone aware of what's needed to improve instruction and outcomes.
They celebrate milestones along the way. Last week, students who made up credits before the end of the semester got a cupcake party. But they also don't skimp on the reality messages.
"I show them my budget, what I have to have to survive in the real world," graduation enhancement teacher Mike Rogers said. "Do you want to have a car? Do you want to have an apartment? You're not going to be able to do that on $10 an hour."
Graduate on time, and one path is opened, counselor Kelly Davey said she tells students. Then she takes them to the portable classroom where GED instruction takes place.
"Get it together, or this is what you'll be doing," she said, noting that often the stark message has the desired effect.
Wesley Chapel has seen its graduation rate increase from 73.5 percent in 2007 to 90.6 percent in 2011.
Hudson High is another school that has seen dramatic improvements in its graduation rate. It improved from 70 percent in 2010 to 85 percent in 2011.
Assistant principal Michele Williams said the improvement was not the result of a single year's activity, but rather the outgrowth of four years of hard work.
The high school staff has made it a priority to improve its personal relationships with students, so that they feel welcome at school and want to work for the people urging them on, Williams said.
"If you can keep people around focused on those things, they do grow," principal Dave LaRoche said. "We spend time one on one talking to kids, figuring out what it is we can do better to meet their needs."
As Fivay High opened nearby and student attendance zones moved, the makeup of the student body significantly changed. The school needed to start over. And stability was critical, as some of the kids attended two different middle schools and two different high schools over the past four years.
One key, then, was adding a homeroom period where teachers worked with students on skills such as self-advocacy.
The school's new credit recovery program played a key role, too, Williams said. She attributed about 10 points of the jump to offering students a way to make up lost credits while still in school during the day.
"I think they saw hope and an opportunity they didn't have," Williams said.
Next year, the state will begin counting students who leave high school early to enter adult education programs as dropouts. That likely will lead school graduation rates to drop off from their highs.
In some instances, students must leave. Hudson High, for instance, has many families that rely on their kids for income, and sometimes finishing high school the traditional way doesn't fit in neatly.
The staffs are looking for more ways to meet those needs, Williams said, so it can keep improving its performance and helping teens get their diplomas.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.