Graduation gap gets wider

School officials here dispute the state's figures. Across the bay, educators are beaming.

Published December 1, 2007

Hillsborough schools have a bigger concentration of poor kids than Pinellas schools. They have a far greater percentage of minority kids. Their teachers aren't as well paid.

So, could it be true that Hillsborough has a high school graduation rate that is a whopping 15 percentage points better than the district across the bay?

According to the state, yes.

Figures released by the state Department of Education on Friday show Hillsborough had a 79.1 percent graduation rate last year, putting it No. 21 among 67 counties, but tops in Tampa Bay and first among the state's seven big urban districts.

Meanwhile, Pinellas' reported rate of 64.5 percent is not only one of the worst in the state (it ranks 59th), it's the third consecutive year the rate has dropped.

Pinellas officials, however, say the state's numbers are off because of a reporting glitch.

The data did not include 274 students who graduated in May from Osceola High in Seminole. Had they been included, Pinellas' graduation rate would be 67.7 percent, a slight increase over last year but still well below the state average and other districts in the Tampa Bay region.

The error is prompting the district to review the graduation numbers at all its high schools by Monday. "We're going to go line by line because we have a gut feeling that there are more errors out there," said John Just, assistant superintendent in charge of the district's data department.

Pinellas has other issues with the state numbers, such as why they show a decline in recent years when internal numbers show increases, and why Hillsborough's numbers are so much better.

The gap between the two counties was at 7 percentage points in 2002-03 and has steadily widened to more than 10 points.

"I don't get that at all," said Pinellas superintendent Clayton Wilcox, noting that his district's high school math and reading test scores are slightly better than Hillsborough's.

Wilcox said he planned a meeting Monday to get to the bottom of the disparity, but added that even a graduation rate in the 70 percent ballpark "is not a number that we'd be particularly proud of."

The widening gap between the region's two large counties - maybe the "Gandy Gap" would be a fitting shorthand - emerged on a day Gov. Charlie Crist found cause for celebration and a key Democratic leader found reason to criticize.

The state graduation rate rose to 72.4 percent this year, according to department calculations, which is 1.4 percent higher than last year and 12 percentage points higher than in 1999.

Florida has made "exceptional progress," Crist said in a written statement.

But according to calculations by independent experts, the state's rate - an embarrassment for years - continues to be one of the worst in the nation.

Programs pay off

Florida's method for calculating that rate also remains controversial: lauded because of the state's highly regarded student tracking system, but slammed because it includes GED diplomas, which many educators consider to be inferior.

Education Department officials could not immediately provide rates that did not include GEDs.

"Numerous independent and government studies of graduation and dropout rates show Florida ranks last or near the bottom of the 50 states," House Democratic leader Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, said in a news release. "We are not going to solve this true crisis by trying to simply redefine it."

Back in Tampa Bay, Hillsborough officials weren't quibbling. They issued a news release trumpeting the news.

Superintendent MaryEllen Elia credited ongoing efforts to target schools with the most needs, beginning at the elementary level.

By traditional measures, Hillsborough schools face bigger challenges: 49 percent of their students are on free or reduced-price lunch, and 57 percent are minorities, compared with 41 percent and 36 percent, respectively, in Pinellas.

Meanwhile, average teacher pay was $43,412 last year in Hillsborough and $45,679 in Pinellas.

Elia said programs allowing struggling students to make up, or recover, credits that they failed are helping to get more to graduation. So are the career and technical programs in place at every high school, which sets Hillsborough apart from other districts, she said.

"A kid that might not have high academics has an opportunity to take courses that are of interest to him at the school," she said. "We're very plugged into this. It's been an agenda in this district for a long time."

Pinellas has only recently begun to ramp up its career and technical programs.

Despite Pinellas' showing, Wilcox said the district was working hard to increase its graduation rate. He cited two initiatives that could help: beefed up literacy programs and a stronger effort to improve civility on high school campuses.

He said the district seems to be headed in the right direction, just not quickly enough.

The graduation rate is a wake-up call," he said. "It's been driving everything we do."


Signs a teen could be a dropout risk

-Boredom or detachment.

-Lack of confidence in school ability.

-No long-term plans or goals.

-Rudeness or abusiveness at home or school

-Increased absences from school.

Some things a parent can do:

-Meet teachers and school employees; check in daily with the student.

-Consider transferring the teen to another school.

-Arrange for a special program, counseling or tutoring.

-Listen closely to what the teen says about poor grades.

-Find ways to help the teen relax.

-Let the teen know you support him or her; don't scold.

-If the teen is becoming a parent, help him or her find programs that meet those special needs.

For more tips:



-www.nea.org (National Education Association); search site for "School Dropout Action Plan."