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The graduation rate in Pinellas high schools last year was so startling that superintendent Clayton Wilcox is right to ring the education alarm. Computational errors may have played a role, but they don't begin to explain the jarring disparities.
Forget about the unfavorable comparison with neighboring Hillsborough County. Within Pinellas itself, the rate of graduation differed starkly from one school to the next and from one race to another. Palm Harbor University High, with two academic magnet programs, graduated 96 percent of its incoming ninth-grade students. Dixie Hollins High graduated 45 percent. White students in Pinellas graduated at a rate of 71 percent and black students at 43 percent.
In fact, the rate of graduation for African-American students, if correct, ranks Pinellas the worst of Florida's 67 counties. That's shameful and unacceptable.
The release and reporting of this year's results caused Wilcox to pull his top assistants together for an unusual Sunday morning meeting. They turned around and met with high school principals the next day, insisting they produce strategies by Dec. 21. Said Wilcox: "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."
School Board members need a similar sense of urgency. They are scheduled on Tuesday to adopt a student assignment plan that should help the district focus less on busing and more on classrooms. The quicker the district makes the transition to closer-to-home assignments the more likely it will produce transportation savings that can be spent inside schools. Given the possibility of more state budget cutbacks, a lengthy transition is not financially responsible.
That new assignment plan also envisions more alternatives for high school students, including career academies that will be called centers of excellence. One reason students drop out of high school is that it loses relevance, particularly if they aren't interested in college. That's where a curriculum focused on meaningful post-high school employment is vital.
Schools are not to blame for all of the students who drop out, of course, and families and communities must play a more active role. But Wilcox appears to take this problem personally. All educators should.
[Last modified December 10, 2007, 06:48:12]