The Pinellas County School District is gearing up to radically revamp its dropout prevention programs, with top officials saying that current efforts are not working and that even bright kids are bailing out.
There are no details yet. But Cathy Fleeger, the district's chief academic officer, told a district-appointed committee last week to "dream big" — to keep what students want in mind.
That could mean flexible hours. Or a school in a storefront. Or something even more nontraditional.
"We need to be asking students, 'What would you like? What do you need to stay in school?' " Fleeger told School Board members at a workshop Wednesday. "We need to think like the Burger King. Have it my way."
The push for the overhaul is obvious. Pinellas' graduation rate leapt to 74.4 percent last year, after three years of decline or stagnation. But its rate remains lower than that of other Tampa Bay area districts — including Hillsborough, at 80 percent — and below the state average of 75.4 percent.
Meanwhile, Pinellas has become fertile ground for charter schools that cater to potential dropouts.
Fleeger said she told the committee, "Think about the fact that we're competing with a ... school that can stand in the mall and promise a kid an iPod if they come to their school, that will pay them for (good) grades."
Bright and bored
Many of the potential dropouts don't fit the stereotypes.
Fleeger said her goddaughter dropped out — despite a 4.3 grade point average — because she was interested in fashion marketing and wanted a more adult setting for learning. (She eventually re-enrolled and earned a traditional diploma from Dunedin High.)
"We have a real core of kids who are of average to very gifted intelligence who we bore to death," Fleeger said. "These students don't like traditional school as we deliver it."
In a 2006 Gates Foundation survey, 47 percent of dropouts said they quit because classes weren't interesting.
Similar responses are found in an annual Florida Department of Education survey that asks dropouts, "What would have improved your chances of staying in school?"
In Pinellas last year, 179 of 321 dropouts picked "opportunity for real-world learning," far and away the top choice among nine options. Sixty-nine picked individual instruction; 51 picked smaller classes. Only 19 picked more parental involvement.
The new "graduation enhancement" committee includes school officials and representatives from other agencies, including the Juvenile Welfare Board and the Boys & Girls Clubs.
Its recommendations are due in January.
In the meantime, the district will survey at-risk students and dropouts and do face-to-face talks with focus groups.
School Board member Nina Hayden said the key to any approach is showing students that school can be relevant — and fun. She recalled a conversation with one student who said school wasn't going to give him what he wanted: girls, cars, a place to stay.
"I can get that real quick out on the streets," the student told her.
The charter approach
The district isn't alone in thinking it's not doing enough.
Pinellas has three charter schools geared toward at-risk high school students, with two more on the way. Charter schools are run with public money but are independently managed and given flexibility with things like curriculum and scheduling.
At the new Mavericks High in Largo, students who boost their academic performance and attendance will eventually get to spend more time in a game room playing John Madden football and Tiger Woods golf.
Another charter school, the Florida High School for Accelerated Learning, is scheduled to open next fall in Kenneth City. Its approach is big on flexible scheduling, a self-set pace and technology.
Charter schools "are looking at a way to serve these communities because there's such a huge need," said Robert Essink, president of Accelerated Learning Solutions, which is managing the Kenneth City charter.
Charter schools won't hamper district efforts, Fleeger said. But they are motivating the district to act.
"We think we can do some of the things that they're doing, and just as well or better," she said.
Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873.