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  1. The Education Gradebook

In the quest for higher graduation rates, Hillsborough educators seek student ideas

Published Mar. 5, 2015

TAMPA — The survey answers were surprising and not encouraging.

Students did not feel respected at school. Few had considered dropping out, but most knew someone who had. Lack of financial and family support were barriers to success.

The research did not come from educators, but from students.

"When you normally think of Armwood, you think of football," sophomore Jacquez Lilite said. "It's all true, but we're more than that."

At a summit Wednesday, students from four Hillsborough County high schools — including Armwood, where the graduation rate is 66 percent — offered their solutions to the district's lackluster graduation rate.

Hillsborough, with a rate of 73.5 percent, lags behind the statewide rate of 76.1 percent and the national rate of 81 percent. Only 60 percent of Hillsborough's black students earned diplomas in 2014, and only 68.1 percent of Hispanic students did.

Raising those numbers is a priority for the Alliance for Public Schools, one of numerous organizations that are meeting around the country to try to move the needle closer to 90 percent.

It's also high on the list for Jeff Eakins, the likely replacement on July 1 for superintendent MaryEllen Elia.

"We can't see graduation as a mechanical, compliance-driven requirement," Eakins told the students, along with top district staff and representatives of community organizations. "It has to set students up for success in their life."

Poised to step in as acting superintendent when Elia leaves for a long vacation today, Eakins listed several possible solutions. One is to give children a stronger educational foundation in the younger grades. School employees — all of them, not just the classroom teachers — need to engage with students as role models when needed. As for teachers, he said, "they are not teaching a curriculum. They are teaching a student."

The students, in the sessions they led, described their research and the plans they devised, typically for the coming year.

The group at Armwood is rolling out "Soaring Hawks," a peer-to-peer mentoring program.

"We focus on eighth-graders coming into high school, because if we get them early they will adapt to high school," said Cameron Sutton, a 15-year-old sophomore.

At Durant High in Plant City, the issues are different. The school has an overall graduation rate of 87 percent. But the achievement gap is pronounced, with only a 54 percent rate among students who are learning English as a second language.

The students described social segregation along racial lines. "This is not something that is done to us, we do this to ourselves," Durant senior Logan Holland said.

Their survey showed many students ride to school with other students, including siblings who sometimes make them late for school.

"You wind up being penalized even though you're still coming to school," said Lilian Foley, a sophomore Durant. She said she had a friend who could not join the sophomore council for that reason. "That takes a toll on a student. It lowers their self-esteem. You kind of get down on yourself."

The students are forming a club called Students for Student Success that, like the Armwood effort, will link struggling students with tutors. National Honor Society members who need community service hours are one source of assistance.

They're also designing a graduation pledge for kids to sign at pep rallies. And they want school staff to listen more attentively when students discuss their struggles.

"I know people who have said they were thinking of dropping out and no one has taken them seriously," Durant senior Cesar Caro said. "This kind of frustrates me."