In what has become an annual tradition, the Manatee County School District announced earlier this month that the percentage of students graduating from Manatee schools has increased. This year 83.5 percent of students graduated, marking an all-time high for the school district.
The rate of students graduating from the district has increased nearly 20 percentage points in five years.
Administrators point to a variety of programs, many designed to capture students who, a decade ago, would have been likely to drop out.
“We offer many different options for students to receive a diploma; it's not a one size fits all,” said Deputy Superintendent for Instructional Services Cynthia Saunders. “We try to provide the flexibility.”
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Students who work day jobs can now enroll in the LIFE program, which offers evening courses. Students who aren’t keen on high school’s social dynamic can take classes from home through the Florida Virtual School. Students pursuing a trade can now take career prep dual-enrollment classes at Manatee Technical College.
It's not a one size fits all. We try to provide the flexibility. -
Deputy Superintendent for Instructional Services Cynthia Saunders.
There are currently eight different routes toward a standard diploma graduation, counting all the different diploma options and methods of getting academic credit.
“I would say the whole purpose of high school is to graduate your students,” Braden River Principal Jennifer Gilray said. “We want our children to graduate high school. That should be the goal of the school.”
While the district touts its increasing rate and variety of options, some teachers question how the district elevated its graduation rate so quickly and wonder if pressure from the state is encouraging administrators to do whatever it takes to make sure as many students graduate.
“Unless a kid just entirely gives up and stops coming to school and says, ‘Screw it, I'm not going to do it any more,’ it's almost impossible not to graduate,” said Manatee High School economics teacher Don Falls. “Twenty years ago if a kid was doing badly in multiple areas the school basically showed him the door. And that wasn’t good either, but I think the pendulum has swung a little too far in the other direction.”
But Superintendent Diana Greene said the state standards remain in place, and she said any adults questioning the rigor of modern high school should be realistic when comparing their high school memories to what students are required to do today.
Unless a kid just entirely gives up and stops coming to school and says, ‘Screw it I'm not going to do it any more,’ it's almost impossible not to graduate.
- Manatee High School Teacher Don Falls
“They didn’t have to pass the Algebra 1 test, and there was no 10th grade (English Language Arts) that I guarantee you many adults could not pass,” Greene said. “I believe students today have more pressure and stresses than any generation of students going through the public school system.”
Why the increase?
The rapid uptick in the graduation rate began at the same time the state re-calibrated its school grading formula to include graduation rate in a high school’s grade. While before 2010 the school grade only counted test scores, in the 2010-11 school year the graduation rate was included and is now worth 100 points on the 1,000-point scale.
In Manatee, the rate had hovered in the low to mid 60s from 2003 to 2010. The first year graduation rates were factored into school grades, the rate went from 64.7 percent to 76.2 percent.
The first year graduation rates were factored into school grades, the rate went from 64.7 percent to 76.2 percent.
Greene said while she wasn’t surprised the rate went up once it was calibrated into school grades, she does not think that is the sole reason.
“Whatever you expect, you inspect. I would be lying if I didn’t say it doesn’t shine a spotlight on it more, and high schools understand that this plays into their school grade,” Greene said. “But I don’t think the accountability system is the reason why this is going up.”
Bayshore High School Principal David Underhill has a white board at Bayshore, displaying all the different criteria tracked by the state, including the graduation rate. He reviews the categories with his staff and updates the criteria throughout the year.
Underhill said once the state integrated graduation rates into school grades, high schools intensified their focus on it, but he said high schools have not lowered their standards in the quest for higher pass rates.
I would be lying if I didn’t say it doesn’t shine a spotlight on it more, and high schools understand that this plays into their school grade. -
Manatee County Superintendent Diana Greene
“It’s not that it is easier to get (a diploma). We just create an environment where we can recoup things quicker,” Underhill said. “And the standards are still there. I don’t see us doing something that makes a high school diploma cheapened.”
And in spite of the rate’s sharp increase, the method for calculating graduation rate is described as “the most stringent of all versions Florida has calculated,” on the Department of Education’s web page.
After using numerous different methods to calculate the rate, the state settled on the Federal Uniform Graduation Rate in 2010. The federal rate only counts standard diploma recipients as graduates, whereas previous versions of the formula included GED and certificates of completion.
Based on the federal rating, the state average was 52 percent in 1998. It has been on a steady increase since then, topping out this year at 80.7 percent.
The state retroactively calculated the rate using federal standards back to 1998. Based on the federal rating, the state average was 52 percent in 1998. It has been on a steady increase since then, topping out this year at 80.7 percent.
State tests can be one major hurdle for some students to graduate. Students who have earned enough credits and maintained the necessary 2.0 grade point average still cannot graduate unless they pass the state-required reading and algebra tests.
Imagine you have taken the (reading exam) since tenth grade and you can’t get that passing score, and, hearing, ‘Oh, sorry, you’re not going to graduate.’”
- Manatee County Superintendent Diana Greene
The district found a solution for those students in 2014 with Smart Horizons, an online high school that describes itself as “the world’s first accredited private online school district.” The program is accredited through AdvancED, a non-governmental organization that accredits schools and school districts.
Former Superintendent Rick Mills presented Smart Horizons to the school board in January 2014, saying the program would “significantly and positively impact the graduation rate,” according to board minutes.
The program is not cheap; enrollment is $1,295 per student.
The district has nearly doubled its investment in Smart Horizons over the past two years. In 2014 the board authorized spending up to $211,065 on licenses, which would amount to roughly 160 diplomas. In November the board gave approval to spend up to $395,250 to purchase as many as 50 licenses per high school.
On Wednesday, Saunders said she was not able to provide statistics on how many students have earned a diploma through Smart Horizons because of staff being on winter break. She said students who graduate with a Smart Horizons diploma are not counted as a district graduate, but by earning the diploma they also are not classified as a dropout. When calculating the graduation rate, a Smart Horizons graduate is treated the same as a student who moved to another school district.
Board member Karen Carpenter praised the program, saying it is evidence the district “appeals to all different learning styles,” but she said she expected the district to monitor the effectiveness of the program closely.
She also said knowing what students who earn degrees from Smart Horizons do after graduation would help evaluate the program.
“I really want to know where the kids are after they graduate — are they in the military? Do they go to Manatee Technical College and learn a trade so they can earn a living?” Carpenter said. “I'm not sure how much data post graduation we are keeping. It's hard to come by.”
Greene said the program is used as an avenue for students who have met all the other criteria but can’t pass the state-mandated tests.
“Imagine you have taken the (reading exam) since 10th grade and you can’t get that passing score, and you hear, ‘Oh, sorry, you’re not going to graduate,’” Greene said. “This is about ensuring every student has the opportunity to graduate. This is not about graduation rate or perception.”
Janet Kerley, a former administrator with the district, said she understands why Greene has focused so intently on the graduation rate.
“I think, rightly so, there has been more pressure,” Kerley said. “We know that students who don’t graduate high school are pretty much doomed in their career prospects.”
Graduation rates per high school
Bayshore High School: 82 percent
Manatee High School: 89 percent
Palmetto High School: 90 percent
Southeast High School: 82 percent
Lakewood Ranch High School: 94 percent
Braden River High School: 92 percent
Manatee School for the Arts: 99 percent
State College of Florida: 99 percent
Virtual School: 56 percent
Horizons Academy: 15 percent
Pace Center for Girls: 40 percent