Manatee County's graduation rate jumps by more than 10 percent

kbergen@bradenton.comDecember 9, 2012 

MANATEE -- Mike McCann peruses the computer screen before him. Click. The school district's supervisor of Dropout Prevention and Alternative Education pulls up a list of juniors and seniors who failed their FCAT math test. Click. Seniors behind in credits. Click. Transfers -- highlighted in green.

He stops at a profile of a Bayshore High School student who has almost perfect attendance but is behind in his credits. His GPA hovers just under the 2.0 needed to graduate.

"He's close," McCann says with a smile.

Nine months ago the district didn't have the computer capabilities to track students this easily, to zoom in on their education, find who is failing and intervene quickly so that a student graduates.

There were 2,075 students who graduated from Manatee County last school year,

improving the district's graduation rate from 65 to 76 percent. At the same time, the dropout rate fell from 1.9 percent to 1.8 percent; 245 students dropped out last school year compared to 354 the previous year.

These increases come at the same time state officials have lauded the state's graduation rate as the highest single-year increase since 2003.

McCann says the mission in Manatee County has been simple: Prevent students from dropping out, make sure students who are labeled as dropouts actually are and increase accountability for students on all levels.

Success has been twofold -- new technology has made the district's dropout figures more accurate, and teachers and the district are doing better than ever at providing extra support for students who need it to graduate.

"We're doing it earlier. We're doing it more often. We're doing it aggressively," Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning Bob Gagnon said. "And the teachers are doing a great job."

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Florida's overall graduation rate rose by almost 4 percent this year -- 74.5 percent of students graduated high school in four years.

Last year, Manatee County was ranked 44 out of 67 school districts for graduation rates. This year the district was ranked 21st with the majority of the county's high schools improving their rates.

New state standards on how graduation rates are calculated should have made improvement more difficult, McCann said. Since the 2010-11 school year, graduation rates are based on cohorts -- students who enter the system as ninth graders and are set to graduate together. The state also recently required high schools to track an "at-risk" cohort, starting with eighth-graders who perform at Level 1 or 2 on the FCAT.

And this time, the state ruled that a district's graduation rate can only be calculated by standard diplomas, and not include GEDs or special diplomas.

Manatee County has typically had a high number of alternative diplomas, and McCann worried that overall rates would plummet. But this year the overall number of graduates dropped by fewer than 60 students. The ESE graduation rate rose by 10 percent this year. McCann says it's clear that students and teachers rose to the challenge.

"We were probably in many cases too willing to accept alternative diplomas," McCann said. "We are expecting students to do more, and they can. This is part of the proof."

Exceptional Student Education Director Jodi O'Meara agrees, but says major efforts to improve support for ESE students at county high schools also played a role.

"There was a focused effort on the ESE teachers, who worked really hard to raises these scores," O'Meara said. "These ESE students have really gotten the attention they need and deserve because they are held to the same standards as everyone else."

More than ever, says Secondary Exceptional Student Education Coordinator Joe Roberts, ESE students are pushed to strive for standard diplomas over special diplomas, which require fewer credits.

"Our ESE specialists are looking at families, looking at the student directly and the teacher," Roberts said. "In the past a student might have said I'm going to go for a special diploma because it's easier. If it's determined that a child has the potential to even attempt to get a regular diploma, specialists are trying to get parents to challenge their kids in a regular classroom."

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Many students are transient in this district. Transferring. Moving. Quitting. Skipping. It doesn't matter if a student doesn't technically drop out.

"If we can't identify where he went, he becomes a dropout," McCann said. "Now we are tracking every single kid. Every place they go, we know."

In the past nine months, Gagnon charged district computer programmer David Thayer to develop software that has tracking capabilities that can locate transfers at other schools, highlight students with an alarming number of absences and identify students in danger of not graduating. It is not a FOCUS program, but it draws on FOCUS information. It provides a link between departments and schools that wasn't there before, and coding is now more accurate.

"It's not about the graduation rate," Gagnon said. "It's about making sure kids reach their goal and making sure they don't fall through the cracks."

Last year, McCann says that two schools missed out on A grades because of a small number of struggling students that the district was unable to identify. Graduation rates account for part of the state's performance grades for public schools.

"We now know how a couple of students can affect the grading of a school," McCann said. Now, the district easily sends schools frequent reports on which students are dropping below the levels needed to graduate so that guidance counselors and teachers can quickly intervene.

"It's pushed to them every day. There is no way to avoid it," Gagnon said. "It puts it right at their fingertips."

In addition, McCann's department continues other efforts to identify why a student is missing school -- bringing parents to truancy court, calling all student contacts, sometimes even knocking on doors.

Roberts says the new technology has done wonders for the department, and registrar training has also minimized mistakes.

"The registrars were not trained. They were putting in the wrong codes," said Roberts. In the past, the department could track attendance and record grades; now they can automatically calculate averages and communicate with parents through the software.

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Course credit recovery and other intervention programs have existed in the district for decades, but school officials say they are more effective now.

Students now are more likely to take them.

"The kids are becoming more aware of the opportunities, so they are taking advantage of those opportunities," said Verdya Bradley, associate director, innovative programs and parental options associate director.

Current online programs, such as Aventa or Plato, allow students to independently catch up on coursework they may have failed, Bradley said. Many high schools host these programs in classrooms with onsite teachers. Other students take the classes at home through the Virtual School.

The Manatee County Life Program, an extension of Horizons Academy, offers that same classroom opportunity for students who miss part of the school day because they work and support their family.

Roberts said the new tracking software makes it easier to identify students who need to be in credit recovery classes or learning strategies classes, an elective designed for struggling students. In the past these classes might have been like study halls, but they've changed over the years.

"They are actually reteaching things. They are reinforcing things going on in other classrooms," O'Meara said. "They do organizational skills and time management."

McCann also believes the community's emphasis on career academies, programs in Manatee County high schools that allow students to specialize in certain coursework, are helping fuel better graduation rates.

Students, he says, are motivated when they are engaged in what they are learning.

Katy Bergen, Herald education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.

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