One of a school district's most basic missions is to see that its students earn high school diplomas. Pinellas school officials were deeply embarrassed a year ago with the district's poor graduation rate, and they took aggressive, pragmatic action. The result is that the school district's graduation rate is up significantly, a positive sign and an affirmation that energy and focus can make a difference.
Prodded by then-superintendent Clayton Wilcox, the district identified students who were dispirited or in danger of dropping out and worked with them to find alternative, accepted paths to receive a diploma. Earn credit online. Work at the GED. Take a test accepted in lieu of the FCAT if their scores were too low. The result was a remarkable 7 percentage point increase in the graduation rate — from 67.3 percent a year ago to 74.4 percent this year.
Pinellas school officials should be applauded for pushing hard to identify these students and assisting them in finding ways to earn diplomas. They increased their resolve to prevent these students from falling into gaps in the system. That's good. After all, students on the edge of dropping out or failing to get a diploma can't be helped if the school system doesn't know — or particularly care — who they are and what they are doing.
But there's a further point on which to build. Rather than concentrating on these students in a last semester push for diplomas, the broader challenge is to focus on these students much earlier in their school careers and get them on course much sooner.
In Pinellas, 553 more students earned diplomas this year than last. More than half of that increase came from students who used the GED to help them graduate. Another 100 additional students used an alternative assessment. But for the next school year, the Department of Education is moving toward a stricter standard for high school accountability, the factors that lead to a school's grade. GEDs would no longer count toward the graduation rate.
Just as the district is using ingenuity to help more students receive diplomas, it should continue to devote even more energy to making sure that these changes are more academic and less bureaucratic. The good news is that more students are receiving their diplomas. The bad news is that they might be only marginally better educated by taking that last course or that last test in finding an alternative path to the diploma. The district should next strive to engage and educate those students so they don't need to rely so much on alternative assessments to bump up the graduation rates.
A diploma is important for the opportunities it creates. Now it's time for that diploma itself to mean something more. The district and the state should continue the debate about what a high school diploma actually signifies. For the student hoping to attend junior college, does it mean a readiness to tackle the course load without remedial instruction? For the student directly entering the work force, does it mean the basic ability to be able to learn the task at hand? In both cases, Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith believes the answer is simple: yes. That is a good standard, and one Pinellas should focus on as it works to continue to improve its graduation rate.