Manatee school district finds graduation rate success with new strategy

December 12, 2012 

The Manatee County school district has come under relentless criticism for several years over its poor graduation rate, ranking among the lowest in the state. But now the district boasts one of the best thanks to a concerted effort to help students.

Out of Florida's 67 school districts, Manatee ranked 44th last year with a 65 percent graduation rate. Today, though, the district's rate stands at 76 percent -- with a dramatic jump to 21st in the state.

Rates rose across Florida, increasing 3.9 percentage points to a statewide average of 74.5 percent. That magnifies Manatee's achievement of surpassing some two dozen districts in the rankings.

While the striking surge should mute critics, the district's focus has been student achievement, not the graduation rate. In Herald education reporter Katy Bergen's Sunday article detailing the district's effort, Bob Gagnon, the assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, explained: "It's not about the graduation rate. It's about making sure kids reach their goal and making sure they don't fall through the cracks."

The district recently developed software to track students at risk of failing and dropping out of school. This allows Mike McCann, the district's supervisor of Dropout Prevention and Alternative Education, to locate those students and quickly intervene with extra support from teachers and guidance counselors. Previously, the district had no way to identify these at-risk students.

While attendance and grades have always been available, the new technology calculates averages and makes it easier to identify struggling students and place them in credit recovery or learning strategies classes -- a marked improvement over the study halls of the past. As a result, last year the district saw 245 students drop out, a sharp decrease from the previous year's 354. Overall, 2,075 students graduated at the end of the last school year.

The jump in the graduation rate is all the more remarkable given the fact the state changed the way those figures can be calculated -- only by standard diplomas. By ruling out GEDs and alternative diplomas, Manatee County -- which usually carried a large number of those -- was forced to steer students on the tougher path to graduation. Students responded to the challenge, boosting the graduation rate at a time when district officials feared a drop.

Kudos to the school district for devising this aggressive strategy to improve student achievement. And as Gagnon points out, kudos to the teachers -- who he said "are doing a great job."

We hope this signals an upward trajectory in student achievement in the coming years, too. Like Gagnon also stated, it's all about the kids.

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