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    For many, graduation never comes

    High school administrators are working to help students who fall behind.

    [Times photo: Dirk Shadd]
    Ashley Valentine, right, who will be a senior at Northeast High School, takes students and parents on a tour of the school after an orientation program that helps incoming freshmen adjust to high school life.

    By KELLY RYAN

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published June 3, 2001


    Tracey Schmidt missed the senior breakfast. She won't walk in Thursday's Northeast High School graduation ceremony. She won't get a cap or gown. At least, not yet.

    Tracey is among thousands of Pinellas County high school students who began as freshmen four years ago but will not graduate on time this week. Some drop out entirely while others end up getting their GEDs in night school or taking one or two final classes in summer school.

    Tracey is among those who plan to stick it out, returning for a second senior year. Tracey's fifth year is a consequence of too many skipped classes for midday naps or beach outings, of too many D's and F's she found frustrating after working hard.

    "Why come if you're going to try your hardest and not make the grades? I got lazy," said Tracey, 18. "Next year, I am going to be a senior and it's going to be horrible."

    It's not much consolation to Tracey -- or educators -- but she is in good company.

    In Pinellas County for 1999-2000, 64.3 percent of students graduated from high school four years after entering ninth grade. Pinellas' graduation rate is higher than the state average but lower than school districts in Pasco, Hillsborough, Hernando and Citrus counties.

    Of the remaining 35.7 percent, only 3 percent are officially considered dropouts, or those who leave school before graduation and don't enroll in another school before the end of the school year. The district does not have a good system of tracking the rest of the students who don't graduate on time, so officials can't say precisely how many get late diplomas or high school equivalency certificates -- or never return.

    The state used to calculate the graduation rate by comparing the number of seniors to the number of freshmen four years before. Since 1999, the state has tracked individual students through school and accounted for those who either transfer to another school, move away but don't re-enroll, or pass away. Pinellas educators agree the statistics are more accurate now, but also think the numbers underestimate the county's success.

    Amid all the pomp and circumstance and hopeful speeches at this week's graduation ceremonies, high school administrators acknowledge that no matter the number, hundreds of students fall behind each year.

    Administrators agonize over what to do about the students who should be at graduation but aren't.

    "Many of the students won't come back for the fifth year," said Darla Guthrie, Countryside High's guidance coordinator. "They have already been here four years, and they're in the hole and trying to see the light at the end of the tunnel. They just can't see it."

    How many students graduate on time has a lot to do with where they live. In Pinellas, far more students graduate on time north of Ulmerton Road, the county's historic divide.

    The only two schools with more than 70 percent graduating in four years are north of Ulmerton: East Lake High, with 75.5 percent, and Palm Harbor University High, with 78.2 percent. Three of the four schools with fewer than 50 percent graduating on time are south of Ulmerton: Dixie Hollins, Northeast and Pinellas Park. The other is Largo High.

    Elthea Childress, guidance coordinator at East Lake High School, said her school doesn't have any magic formulas for helping students graduate. It's just that her school draws from a more affluent neighborhood and has a lot of parent support. Most students who pass through her office are interested in attending four-year colleges.

    "You assume they graduate in four years," Childress said. "Parent expectations have a lot to do with it."

    Students need to show up

    On average, 10 to 12 percent of high school students are absent every day. Per high school, that's around 200 students.

    At Dixie Hollins High, assistant principal Steve Knellinger said some students skip school with the permission of their parents, who want them to babysit for younger siblings or go to work to help support the family.

    Many students skip without a parent's permission.

    "We have very well-meaning parents who drop their kids off every day, and the kid never gets to class," Knellinger said.

    "On the other end of the spectrum, we have some parents who don't give a flip what their kids do. You don't learn being absent 20, 30 days."

    For those who are in class, it's not terribly difficult to fall behind.

    Freshmen are immature and wide-eyed at sprawling high school campuses, teeming with older students and other distractions. Many don't realize that skipping class or sliding by can haunt them later on.

    "To tell you the truth, I joke with kids who have been here, "You must really like school because at this rate you're going to be here five or six years,' " said Jim Gill, a Largo High guidance counselor.

    "Kids in ninth grade don't seem to understand, as often as we repeat it to them, that if they don't take enough credits, they won't go to the next grade level and they won't graduate on time."

    In some schools, as many as 150 or 200 students have to repeat ninth grade.

    For schools on the traditional six-period day, there is no room to fail even a single class in four years. Students must earn 24 credits to graduate, and that's how many they have in four years. Several high schools are switching to "block scheduling," which allows students to earn eight credits a year.

    "I just think high school is probably more challenging than it has ever been," said Boca Ciega principal Barbara Paonessa. "It takes a certain amount of commitment. Sometimes it takes students a couple of years to get in the groove."

    Schools reach out to help

    This exercise is often repeated annually, in large groups and private meetings, as students progress through high school

    Schools send letters when students miss too many classes. Guidance counselors routinely review students' files for warning signs -- but with four guidance counselors for 2,000 students per high school, they admit some students could fall through the cracks. After-school or Saturday tutoring programs are offered.

    For John McHenry, help came in the form of GOALS, which stands for Graduation Options -- Alternatives to Leaving School. He entered GOALS -- for unmotivated students of average intelligence who have fallen behind -- after failing chemistry and geometry junior year.

    Classes in GOALS are small, encourage hands-on learning and allow students to make up failed classes.

    GOALS classes (offered at most high schools) cover the same material as regular classes, but the program has the benefit of an attendance clerk who calls students who don't show.

    John, a varsity football player at Dixie Hollins High, said he had been distracted by his parents' medical problems, his own knee surgery and his passion for football. But he found GOALS teachers supportive, and he was able to make up classes to graduate on time.

    "If you want to walk in June, you've got to buckle down and get serious," said John, 19. "How good are you going to feel when you have to look at someone and say it took you five years to graduate from high school? You're going to be embarrassed."

    Several schools are starting programs this fall to rescue more students.

    Boca Ciega and Pinellas Park will offer ninth-graders seminars to teach good study habits, responsibility, respect and time management. Northeast High is kicking off a mentoring program, pairing seniors with about 200 freshmen likely to need help with the transition from middle school.

    "We see a lot of our little kids who come here and get lost," assistant principal Patricia O'Neil said. "They become invisible. They're looking for a role model."

    Does it even matter if students take longer than four years as long as they graduate?

    "We don't all learn at the same speed," said Catherine Fleeger, Pinellas' assistant superintendent for high school education. "Personally, I would rather see a child be able to graduate and be successful in the time it takes them than to push that it has to be done in four years."

    Celine Cooper, 19, should have graduated last June from St. Petersburg's Northeast High. But in her junior year, she got pregnant and missed four months of school. When she returned, the transition was tough and she didn't do well in class.

    So, she has taken five years to finish. But she thinks she's better off than some of her friends, who dropped out after four years.

    "I get dogged by a couple of people, more than a couple of people, but at least I'm trying to do it," said Celine, who will walk in graduation Thursday morning. "I wanted to be something more than a burger flipper. Without a high school diploma, I couldn't do that."

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