Robert Fields knows it. He's behind. The junior at Lakewood High School has a 1.4 grade point average. He's three credits short of where he should be. He hasn't passed the FCAT. If things don't change fast, he's doomed to be another dropout.
But for Fields, 18, things are changing fast.
Lakewood has focused on him and other on-the-edge students like never before. And if recent trends in Pinellas are any indication, his odds of catching up — and graduating — have never been better.
"I'm just fighting. I'm trying to stick it out," he said. "Besides my family, my high school diploma is the most important thing right now. That's what I want in my hand right now."
When it comes to graduation rates, Pinellas is a district on the rise.
In 2007, its rate stood at 66.3 percent — below the state average, fourth among the state's seven biggest districts and a full 10 percentage points below Hillsborough.
Now it's at 77.2 percent. And no big district is getting better faster.
The numbers look even stronger at the school level. In 2007, 12 of Pinellas' 17 high schools had graduation rates below 75 percent. Now only two do.
To get those numbers up, the district has turned to alternative pathways to graduation that other districts have relied on for years. It's also getting better at tracking individual students and informing those who fall short how they can catch up.
"I think we felt (in the past) that if you give the message one time, that's enough," said Lakewood principal Dennis Duda. "We know better than that now. You have to teach and reteach."
In two years, Lakewood's graduation rate has jumped from 66.4 percent to 85.5 percent — among the biggest increases in the district. And like many Pinellas schools, it is seeing especially big gains in minority graduates.
In 2007, 91 black students earned standard diplomas at Lakewood. This year, 125 did. Across the district, 855 black students graduated this year, up from 685 two years ago.
"It's about time," said School Board chairwoman Janet Clark. "I wonder how much of that has to do with better focus in the community. Is the message getting through the kids aren't going to have many options if they don't get a diploma? I don't want to discount the community in this."
At Lakewood, struggling students are offered more FCAT prep and more opportunities to make up classes. The school also is routinely letting them know when they can sign up for college entrance exams and how to prepare for them.
Under state law, students who fail the FCAT exit exam can still graduate with a standard diploma if they score high enough on the ACT or SAT. Last year, 50 Lakewood students earned diplomas through that route.
The school is offering support in other ways. Last year it started a monthly program, Preparing for My Future, for black male seniors at risk of not graduating. This year, it expanded the program to juniors.
"It's all directly related to their education," said guidance counselor Celeste Thomas. "We talk about how easy it is to adjust their thinking just a little bit and be successful."
At a meeting last week, eight juniors, including Robert Fields, sat in a circle in a room plastered with college posters. Marist. Colgate. FSU.
They took turns interviewing each other and making short presentations on what they learned. They then filled out a survey about self-esteem.
"Self-conscious. What does that mean?" one student asked.
"What's a wallflower?" asked another.
Thomas answered their questions, then got to the point.
Self-esteem "affects how you do in school," she said. "If nobody else in the world tells you 'you can do it,' we want you to have that little cheerleader in your head."
Fields said he's getting the message. He said he blew his freshman year, skipping and fighting, then dug himself even deeper at the beginning of 10th grade. But after another report card full of F's, a bell went off.
"I said, 'I'm sick of this.' "
Fields said he earned a 2.4 GPA on his most recent report card. He plans to catch up on credits over the summer.
At the program meeting, he told the other students that he was inspired by their recent trip to St. Petersburg City Hall. He said he had never seen anything like the City Council chambers.
"I loved it," he said. "I'd like to be in those chairs."
Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873.