To continue boosting graduation rates, the Pinellas school district is taking a closer look at a particular group of at-risk kids: overage students in middle schools.
The district has more than 3,200 such students — a number it would like to see significantly reduced.
"Our goal is to have little or no kids" who are overage in middle school, said Dee Burns, who heads dropout prevention.
Many of those students do not appear to be struggling, according to the district's most recent data. But for those who are, school leaders say they are taking more aggressive action sooner.
"The focus is to intervene as early as possible so we don't have students who are getting into high school or close to their graduation year going, 'Oh my gosh, I'm not going to make it,' '' Burns told the Pinellas County School Board this week.
A typical sixth grader comes in at age 11 and leaves at 12. The district considers a sixth grader overage if he or she is 13 or older, or turning 13 or older by year's end.
Four middle schools have more than 200 overage students: Pinellas Park Middle, Morgan Fitzgerald Middle in Largo and Bay Point Middle and John Hopkins Middle in St. Petersburg. Several others have nearly that many.
Some of those students were held back in earlier grades, and many studies suggest they are at greater risk of dropping out. More specifically, some were snared by Florida's third-grade retention policy, which went into effect in 2003 and requires that students be held back if they score poorly on the reading portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
Last school year, Pinellas district officials began sending middle school principals more frequent and detailed information about the overage students in their schools. They noted how many were special education students, and how many had grade point averages below 2.0.
"It is a proactive tool, so we can identify and support kids who may potentially be in jeopardy," said Stephanie Adkinson, the principal at Tyrone Elementary in St. Petersburg.
Data this week showed 652 of 3,258 overage middle school students had GPAs below 2.0 for the last six-week grading period before winter break.
The district plans to incorporate that data into a new tracking strategy for middle school students that mimics what is already happening in high schools. School officials credit that plan for gains in the graduation rate two years in a row.
Some of the data is fuzzy.
It's unclear, for example, how many overage middle school students entered kindergarten a year later because parents thought they were too young. It's also unclear how many special education students, who make up 44 percent of overage middle school students, are on a path to standard diplomas and how many to special diplomas.
It's not a given that overage students are tanking, even those who have been retained. The state's third-grade retention policy mandates intervention for held-back students. And studies by both the Legislature's research arm and an independent researcher show those students score higher in subsequent years than similar students promoted through loopholes in the law.
Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873.