Graduation rates in Florida and the Tampa Bay area continued their steady rise last year, with three local school districts surpassing the state average and all four of them reporting rates over 80 percent.
The latter statistic provided something of a landmark moment for the region. It appears from available state records that this is the first time the Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas county school systems have together eclipsed the 80 percent mark.
The Florida Department of Education released the long-awaited numbers on Wednesday, giving school systems a final grade of sorts for the 2016-17 academic year and a benchmark they will use to help shape their policies.
Florida's overall graduation rate increased 1.6 percentage points to a new high of 82.3 percent. Among the local districts, Hillsborough County saw the largest jump in its rate, up 3.8 points to 82.9 percent.
The new numbers also show that the gap between white and minority students in Hillsborough narrowed by about 2 percentage points over the previous year. The graduation rate is now 74.4 percent for black students and 79.9 percent for Hispanic students, compared to 88.7 percent for white students.
Shortly after he was named Hillsborough superintendent in 2015, Jeff Eakins pledged to reach a 90 percent graduation rate by the year 2020, saying he wanted a goal people that would make people laugh.
Now, he says, the district is more than on track to reach that mark as the graduation rate has climbed nearly 10 points since 2014.
"We definitely had a good feeling all throughout last year that we were going to see a jump," Eakins said Wednesday. "When I was shaking hands (at graduation), I felt like I shook a lot more hands this year."
Some of the school-by-school numbers in Hillsborough were especially dramatic. Armwood High increased its graduation rate by 13.2 percentage points over the previous year. Middleton High, now at 80.5, has seen an increase of 32.6 points in the last five years. Leto High improved nearly 10 points in one year with a 2017 rate of 85 percent, and nearly 19 points over the last five years.
Hillsborough is now tied with Pinellas County, which increased 2.8 percentage points, for the highest graduation rate among local school systems.
Pinellas has been focused on raising its rate among black students and closing the achievement gap. The rate for the district's for black students increased 3.8 percentage points to 69.3 percent, beating Pinellas' target 69.1 percent for 2017.
"I'm just real pleased with the work that's being done," Pinellas superintendent Mike Grego said. "Our most struggling students are graduating."
According to the new numbers, 13 out of Pinellas' 16 traditional high schools increased their rates. Dixie Hollins High jumped 7.8 percentage points to 85.3 percent. One downside was Countryside High, which dropped 3.4 percentage points and now has the lowest graduation rate in the county.
Hernando County, which had the highest rate in Tampa Bay for the class of 2016, saw the lowest growth in the latest numbers, up 1.5 percentage points to a new rate of 82.6 percent.
"The 2017 graduation rate is an affirmation of our focused effort on student achievement," Hernando superintendent Lori Romano said in a statement. "When teachers, students, parents and administrators work as a single team, we can celebrate together knowing our students' futures are brightened."
Though its rate grew 2.3 percentage points, Pasco County still lags just behind the other local districts with a rate of 81.4 percent.
"I'm pleased to see that our data-driven decision-making and the hard work of our teachers, staff and students have translated into significant improvement in Pasco's graduation rate," Pasco superintendent Kurt Browning said in a statement. "We aren't where we want to be yet, but we're moving in the right direction."
Federal regulations require each state to calculate graduation rates based on a four-year adjusted cohort, from freshman to senior year. The rates factor in standard diplomas but they exclude GEDs, both regular and adult, and special diplomas.
They are used in Florida's school accountability system to calculate school grades.
Staff writers Marlene Sokol and Megan Reeves contributed to this report. Contact Colleen Wright at email@example.com or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright on Twitter.