Wilcox tackles grad rates

The superintendent says the low numbers are hard to believe.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN, Times Staff Writer
Published December 7, 2007

The week began early for Pinellas school officials, still stunned by last Friday's news that the district's 2006-07 graduation rate came in disappointingly low.

Superintendent Clayton Wilcox convened a Sunday morning meeting with his top staff, then summoned high school principals to a grim-faced summit first thing Monday.

He told them this would be their "defining moment for better or worse," Wilcox recalled in an interview this week. "I told them that if we didn't improve graduation rates there would be consequences -- and not just for them but for people like me."

Strong words, but the numbers cut deep in a district that fancies itself a budding national leader in dropout prevention.

Pinellas' graduation rate was a lackluster 64.5 percent -- incorrect as it turned out. But the corrected number, thought to be 67.7 percent, was still below the state average and well below Hillsborough County's.

The figures also shed light on the growing gap in graduation rates between Pinellas and Hillsborough, a much bigger district with more kids in poverty and more minorities -- indicators that usually pull graduation rates down.

Hillsborough's graduation rate was 79 percent, not bad for a large, urban county. And its lead on Pinellas has grown in each of the past five years.

Among black and Hispanic students, the new figures put the gap between Hillsborough and Pinellas at a whopping 20 percentage points. The rate for Pinellas black students was 43 percent last year -- worst in the state.

What had Hillsborough done differently?

Was it a bureaucratic issue, perhaps a difference in the way the two counties coded their students by computer? Or was something fundamentally wrong with the way Pinellas handled high school kids?

"Everybody here is just like me: How can it be?" Wilcox said. "I mean, given the demographics, how can it be? Is the quality of teaching in Hillsborough that much better? I can't believe that. I mean, we draw from the same pool of teachers."

By Tuesday, Wilcox ordered several actions designed to get to the bottom of the disparity and see where the district might improve. Among them:

"You can't give up on them," Wilcox said. "You've got to go back and you've got to call every one of those kids that dropped out and you've got to tell them that they have the right to drop back in and that we miss them and want them back. Because they will be condemned to a life of second-class citizens. We know that."

The graduation rate is the percentage of students in a ninth-grade class who receive a regular diploma four years later. Before calculating the percentage, the state factors out students who leave the district, die, move to private or home schooling or enter adult education programs.

Wilcox said early indications are that one reason for the disparity among counties is Pinellas doesn't do a good enough job tracking students when they change schools or don't show up. With more followup, he said, the district might find that they left the state or the county, which does not count against the rate.

He said too many students end up being coded as "W22," short for any student "whose whereabouts is unknown." That brings the graduation rate down, he said. "You've got people who are doing all kinds of other stuff, and once these kids are out of sight they're just out of mind," Wilcox said. "But that comes back and hits us in a big way."

He said of some of the district's procedures: "We've been sloppy."

A state matrix showing what became of the class of 2007 provides insight into why Hillsborough's graduation rate is better.

Even though Hillsborough's enrollment is 78 percent larger than Pinellas', it had 172 fewer dropouts. It also had 254 fewer kids who remained in school but failed to graduate. Hillsborough also sends a larger percentage of students into adult education programs, where they don't count against the graduation rate.

Wilcox and his principals say they have been hard at work on a number of initiatives designed to keep kids in high school.

They include efforts to insulate and pay more attention to ninth graders before they struggle; help students quickly catch up on credits to avoid the frustration that leads to dropping out; and beef up career programs.

Pinellas high schools also have a new "pyramid of interventions" program that aims to help struggling students at several junctures before they drop out.

Mike Bohnet, principal at Dixie Hollins High, likes his school's 25-minute "advisory period" at the beginning of each day, a kind of homeroom where teachers mentor and connect with students.

Those personal interactions are critical for many students, said Bohnet, who was poring over student data late Thursday, a response to this week's meetings.

"I have to step back and look at what are the areas we can do better at," he said. "I know we're headed in the right direction."

Wilcox said more than a few of his principals said this week they were "sick" about the graduation rate.

He said he told them: "I don't want this to feel like a beating to you, but what we're doing is just not enough. ... We've got to go back and redouble our efforts."

Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at tobin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8923.