Graduation rates ticked up slightly in Pinellas this year, but several high schools — most notably Gibbs and Dixie Hollins — recorded big leaps that propelled them beyond state and district averages.
Gibbs' rate rose from 72.4 to 81.8 percent; Dixie's, from 69.5 to 81.0 percent.
For schools that have faced a torrent of bad publicity because of bad grades and low test scores, this was a sign that things were back on track.
"The people who criticized us should feel like they got slapped in the face," said Gibbs senior Michael Scott. "We're slowly digging ourselves out of the hole."
The strong showing, though, doesn't come without questions.
Graduation rates are notoriously complicated. And preliminary data suggests there may be more to the Pinellas numbers than the bottom line offered by state and district officials.
Neither the districtwide nor school-by-school figures include hundreds of on-the-edge students who transferred into adult education programs — and, as a result, were no longer counted in the grad rate formula whether they were successful there or not. Meanwhile, it's unclear how much the schools benefited from student transfers to Bayside High and other alternative programs.
Are those transfers a cynical ploy to pad graduation rates? Or honest attempts to get floundering students into programs better suited for them?
Dan Evans makes a case for the latter.
"If a kid looked like they weren't going to graduate through the traditional method of graduation, we would counsel them and find a way for them to get a diploma one way or another, even if it wasn't here on our campus," said Evans, who became Dixie's principal in the summer. "The key to the whole thing is to make sure that students, even if they don't finish four years here, finish somewhere."
According to the Florida Department of Education, 1,034 Pinellas students who started as freshmen in 2006-07 had transferred into adult education by the 2009-10 school year — when their class would be graduating.
In adult ed, they had a shot at earning a GED. But even if they did, the state stopped counting general educational development passage toward its graduation rate when it adopted a new formula last year.
If those transfer students are included in the graduation rate, Pinellas' overall rate drops from 77.7 percent this year to 68.8 percent.
At some schools, the drops are even steeper. Dixie, which has an adult education center incorporated into its campus, had more adult education transfers from the group scheduled to graduate in 2009-10 than any other Pinellas school: 103. Factoring those students in would drop Dixie's graduation rate from 81.0 to 61.5 percent.
Gibbs, with 38 such transfers in the mix, would have a graduation rate of 75.3 percent instead of 81.8 percent.
Pinellas isn't the only district where graduation rates look better when adult education transfers are excluded. Statewide, 14,958 students in the 2009-10 group were put in that category, including 2,138 in Hillsborough, 506 in Pasco and 95 in Hernando.
District figures suggest other kinds of transfers — such as to alternative schools — may also be boosting graduation rates. Together, the county's 16 traditional high schools had 530 fewer students in the class finishing in 2009-10 than started high school four years earlier. When that number drops, graduation rates rise, even if the number of graduates remains the same.
Meanwhile, alternative Bayside High had 74 more students.
It doesn't appear adult education transfers are a big part of the dropoff, because state figures show Pinellas had 111 fewer adult education transfers in 2009-10 than the year before.
So where did the kids go?
Alan Mortimer, the district director of research and accountability, said Tuesday he couldn't immediately tell for sure — and wouldn't be able to provide answers without digging after Thanksgiving break.
"There should be a good explanation," he said. "I just don't have it right now."
In the meantime, Pinellas and its high schools are pointing to other factors that may be playing a role in higher grad rates.
Gibbs is in the second year of a program called Target Graduation, which focuses on a small group of borderline students and gives them extra help. Last year, 22 of 29 seniors in the program graduated, said Nicole Johnson, who was then the school's graduation coach and is now an assistant principal. (In raw numbers, the school upped its number of graduates from 351 to 363.)
Gibbs also has a new intervention class called Senior Success, where seniors get tips and tools to stay on track, and keep tabs on their own progress. Students there said they know the school is growing in confidence, whether it's reflected in the grad rates or not.
In the past "too many kids fell between the cracks," Johnson said. "Now somebody has their eyes on them."
Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873.