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Here's how Weeki Wachee High School used analytics — and personal connection — to produce Hernando County's top graduation rate

Teacher D.D. Brooks stands in her classroom at Weeki Wachee High School. The school had the best graduation rate in the county last year at 97.4 percent, which school leaders chalked up to the success of an analytics-driven system. [JACK EVANS | Times]
Published Mar. 5

WEEKI WACHEE — A visitor to Weeki Wachee High School might mistake the room for a math classroom. Posters, printouts and whiteboards cover all four walls, the rectangles of bar graphs jutting like irregular wallpaper.

But this is not a conventional classroom, although numbers and student performance are central here. Principal Troy LaBarbara and his staff call it "the data room." It's the nerve center of a system the school has honed since LaBarbara became principal eight years ago, one that uses data analysis to figure out the best ways to teach and connect to students, especially ones who struggle academically.

The success of that system, LaBarbara said, fueled the school's 2017-2018 graduation rate. Its 97.4 percent was best in the district and 6.5 percentage points above the next-closest high school. Of its 345-student senior class, only 10 students didn't graduate on time.

Three of the district's five high schools had improved from their previous year's graduation rates, but Weeki Wachee's growth was the most extreme. It had an 87.9 percent graduation rate in 2016-17 and an 83 percent rate the year before that.

Florida's graduation rate is based on the number of students in a "cohort" — a group that starts ninth grade at the same school in the same year — who get a diploma within four years of starting school. The state adjusts for students who transfer into the school, students who die while enrolled and some students who transfer out.

"Knowing your students is the key for success," said Mike Quarto, a reading teacher at the school. "Everything we do is data-driven."

Quarto and D.D. Brooks, another reading teacher, said the system is wildly different from the teaching world they entered about two decades ago. LaBarbara, who has a background in special education, has long used data as a teaching tool. When he started teaching, behavioral analysis helped him do his job, and working with data became second nature. Now, it's the invisible infrastructure his school runs on, and he sits awake at night thinking about numbers.

The school starts building profiles of students before they step through the door, LaBarbara said. Guidance counselors use academic data to build students' schedules. Teachers meet in subject groups weekly to compare their classes' progress, and teachers whose students are struggling adopt teaching practices from those with more successful classes. They track individual behavior through a computer program that monitors the school's practice of giving students points for good behavior — they can trade in the points for rewards, such as discounted basketball tickets.

This isn't data for data's sake. LaBarbara emphasized that the school uses analysis to personally connect with individual students.

"The most important thing is to establish relationships with students," he said. "Students at times are going to struggle, but we still can get them to work hard."

Combining academic factors, behavior and attendance lets teachers and administrators know which students need extra help in small groups or one-on-one, and which ones they should push toward advanced-placement or dual-enrollment classes. They use the numbers to know when to bring in students or parents for conferences, and LaBarbara himself has visited students' homes based on data.

Once, he remembered, he visited the house of a kid who'd struggled early in the school year and needed to get on track for graduation. They wound up bonding over a game of checkers.

"All he wanted to do was connect to somebody," LaBarbara said.

All those elements feel like they're moving in lockstep now, LaBarbara said. But he still has ideas for how to improve it, with a teacher-leadership program for new teachers, and a program to focus on struggling ninth-graders, a group the school has the least data on. He'd like to start both in the next school year.

Then there's that graduation rate. One of the charts in the data room tracks what percentage of students would graduate if school ended today. Earlier this week, that number read 84 percent — a worst-case scenario figure that doesn't include students who are on the fence or in danger of backsliding.

LaBarbara has confidence that the final number will be high, but each class of seniors is different, he said. And the targets the school needs to hit to get them to graduate are constantly shifting.

The state analyzes test scores and graduation rates as if students are identical products, he said, "except it's not like going on an assembly line where everyone has the same parts, the same pieces."

The physical manifestation of the school's approach is visible in Brooks' classroom. It is set up based on standards all classrooms follow: The whiteboard specifies an "essential question" for the day, student work examples cover much of the wall space and data about each class period is tacked to a bulletin board at the front of the room.

It's more information than Brooks would have put up when she started teaching, she said, and it can feel overwhelming at first. But outlining what she and the school expect from students, what the data means and how it factors into a wider-angle picture, gives students more agency in the classroom, she said.

"They oftentimes don't feel like they can be successful," she said. "I want to get them to realize they have so much to offer."

Contact Jack Evans at jevans@tampabay.com. Follow @JackHEvans.

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