The gut punch came a year ago this month.
Pinellas school officials were shocked and embarrassed when the district's graduation rate came in at 64.5 percent. The state later corrected it to 67.3 percent, but no one cheered.
In an accountability era when your numbers were supposed to go up, the graduation rate had gone down, and other large counties were doing better.
Then-superintendent Clayton Wilcox let the news sink in over a weekend and summoned principals to a meeting that Monday.
"I don't want this to feel like a beating to you, but what we're doing is just not enough," he recalled telling them. "We've got to go back and redouble our efforts."
Boca Ciega High School principal Paula Nelson remembers: "That was the springboard. I felt like, 'Wow. This is important and we need to get hopping on it.' "
Pinellas bounced back last week when the state announced that its graduation rate for 2007-08 shot to 74.4 percent. The 7-point jump was the biggest of any large county in Florida.
It was not a matter of getting students to buckle down in class — the traditional way.
It is, instead, a story of pragmatism: a second-semester push in the spring of 2008 to identify students on the margins of high school life — dispirited, behind on credits, ready to drop out — and get them out the door with at least a standard diploma.
The district aggressively employed a variety of accepted, alternative pathways for students to get standard diplomas — ways other counties had been exploiting for years.
It nudged a number of seniors into the GED route. It also became far more proactive in telling students who failed the 10th-grade Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test that they still could graduate if they earned high enough scores on either the SAT or ACT, two standardized tests that are commonly used in the college admissions process.
Nearly 300 more Pinellas graduates earned diplomas through the GED last year than the year before. Exactly 100 more than last year succeeded through the "alternative assessment" route.
Together, those graduates accounted for 71 percent of the total growth in Pinellas diplomas.
Many of those students would not have graduated without the alternative options, which are approved by the state.
Many had passed the 10th-grade FCAT — which is required to graduate — but were far short in the number of credits needed for graduation. They went into GED programs.
Many had enough credits but failed the FCAT, so they were urged take the ACT or SAT as an alternative.
Those options existed before last year. But Dunedin High principal Paul Summa said Pinellas became much more proactive about pursuing them after Wilcox threw down the gauntlet.
"His sense of urgency became our sense of urgency," Summa said.
Superintendent Julie Janssen continued the push after Wilcox left in June for a private-sector job.
Dunedin had the second-worst graduation rate in Pinellas in 2007, at 57.1 percent. But last school year, its rate jumped a jaw-dropping 19.3 percentage points, second only to the 28.6 point shift at Dixie Hollins High.
Dunedin shifted into high gear, assembling in-school GED programs in time for the second semester. Its effort included three classes with 45 to 60 students.
Summa estimated more than half graduated, which would have contributed substantially to Dunedin's diploma gains. He guessed a similar number of students benefited from an online program he established at Dunedin that allows students behind on credits to recover them quickly.
"We now had more of a menu," he said.
GEDs push growth
State figures show the difference. In 2007, GEDs pushed up Pinellas' graduation rate by 1.1 percentage points. This year, it pushed up the rate by 3 points.
The rate of GED growth in Pinellas was many times greater than in any other Tampa Bay area district or in any of the state's other big urban districts.
Florida has been widely criticized for having a graduation formula that includes GEDs, which are widely considered inferior diplomas.
Two years ago, Tarpon Springs High had fewer than 10 students who passed the FCAT but pursued a GED because they didn't have enough class credits to graduate. Last year, it had 20 to 40 such students.
The GED and other options aren't perfect, said Tarpon principal Kent Vermeer, but they still help kids get to the next level.
"I sort of like the high school diploma the old way," he said. "But for some of these students, it allows them sort of a light at the end of the tunnel. We have motivated a lot of students by letting them know how those alternative assessments are available to them."
Barbara Thornton, associate superintendent for high school programs, said it's important to note that many students who took alternative routes were close to dropping out.
"Our commitment in this district is to find a way to help them," she said. "I think we'd be irresponsible if we didn't give them options."
Like the GED, the alternative assessment option also raises eyebrows because it allows students to earn diplomas even though they haven't been able to pass the 10th-grade FCAT.
Pinellas' use of the ACT and SAT alternatives grew much faster last year than other in large districts. And the numbers suggest the district can continue to gain ground there.
Even after nearly tripling its number of alternate-assessment kids to 158, Pinellas still had barely more of them than Pasco (128), a district less than two-thirds its size. Hillsborough had 408 such students.
Only a springboard
Statewide, the number of students earning diplomas through the alternative assessment option has grown by leaps and bounds. Last year, 6,546 students successfully went that route, up more than 2,500 students from the year before.
The spike there is a primary factor behind Florida's improving graduation rate.
In a sense, Thornton said, it doesn't matter much whether a diploma comes through the traditional route, a GED or an alternative test.
"It's really only as good as what you do after you get it," she said. "People are only going to look at your last degree."