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  1. Opinion

Column: Hillsborough, Pinellas preparing students to graduate

Graduating high school is one of the most important steps toward building a better future, not just for each graduate but for our entire region.

As superintendents in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, preparing our students to graduate and succeed in life is our business — despite any obstacle students face inside or outside the classroom.

That's why we are thrilled that on March 30, more than 200 students from 12 area high schools will gather in St. Petersburg for the GradNation Summit, an extraordinary event aimed at helping close the gap between those students who graduate and those who struggle.

With this event, the students will drive the conversation. Instead of principals telling students what they need to do to graduate, students will take the stage and tell principals, community leaders — and superintendents — what obstacles they face on the path to graduation and beyond.

No one person is more important to a student's path to graduation than that very student. Take a minute to listen to a student and you will learn what really matters to that child each day. Between packed schedules, the arts, sports, volunteering, friends, cliques and social media, school life can be daunting.

• Students tell us they need dedicated teachers. They need safe schools. They need options to pursue lessons in ways that work for them: in traditional classrooms, at technical schools and online.

• Students tell us they need advocates and mentors, people they know they can turn to, on campus and in the community, to help guide them or just to sit and listen.

• Students tell us they want to succeed well beyond graduation day. They want success in life.

Many of our high schools have graduation rates well above 90 percent, and we applaud them. Yet we know there is more work to be done. Both counties face major issues in many of our struggling schools.

We know that too many students face too many hurdles when earning a quality education. Poverty, dangerous neighborhoods, financial hardships and unstable housing are just some of these factors.

That's why we're creating more innovative programs to help students who need the most help.

In Pinellas County, we have new methods to identify students who struggle early on in our Freshman Transition Teams. The district hosted parent nights to share ways they can prevent students from slipping behind in two key areas that could prevent a student from graduating (English/language arts and math). Students who struggle early on are paired with a peer mentor to guide them through high school.

Pinellas County Schools have revamped discipline practices with an eye to steering kids back toward learning and not into the justice system. We're guiding more students into STEM and Advanced Placement classes and more students than ever are graduating those classes with college credit.

In Hillsborough County, we turned the traditional hierarchy structure upside down, so students and parents are at the top of the pyramid. This culture shift arises from a belief in servant leadership — putting the needs of students first and helping them reach their potential.

Hillsborough County this year implemented a system to track grades, behavior and attendance of all 9th graders to help identify students who need help beginning their path to graduation — rather than waiting until the student has fallen behind. And we're building more internships and mentoring opportunities so students have real-life experiences to prepare them for life after high school.

Many of these programs and projects are quite new, but we're already seeing progress. Graduation rates in both Pinellas and Hillsborough are rising in all subgroups.

All this is thanks to a community of dedicated teachers and staff who give so much of themselves to help our students learn. We also must recognize the additional resources from our volunteers and partners who donate their time, talents and knowledge.

We know there's more to do. We need leaders throughout the community who can help students stay on a path toward graduation and success beyond graduation day.

We are making real progress, and more achievements are ahead. But everyone needs to move in the same direction. We will be there doing what we should all do for our students — listening.

Jeff Eakins is superintendent of Hillsborough County Schools. Michael Grego is superintendent of Pinellas County Schools.