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Manatee County dropout rate lowers, but so does graduation rate

MANATEE -- Both the dropout rate and the graduation rate for Manatee County high schools dropped significantly last year, indicating that more students are staying in school while fewer are satisfying graduation requirements.

District officials are exploring what might be preventing several hundred students who stay enrolled all the way through high school from earning their diplomas.

“We’re pleased that we’re keeping students in school,” says Mike McCann, supervisor of dropout prevention. “But we’ve already identified 498 students who should have graduated but did not. We’re going to try and isolate whether it’s because of not having enough credits or not passing their FCATs.”

Statistics released by the state Department of Education Monday show that Manatee County’s graduation rate dropped in 2010-2011 to 74.6 percent, its lowest rate since 2002-2003 and almost 5 percentage points less than the 2009-2010 graduate rate of 79.2 percent.

At the same time, the district’s dropout rate dropped to its lowest point since 2006-2007: 3.1 percent, which is more than 1 percentage point less than the 2009-2010 dropout rate.

Of the county’s nine high schools, only two showed improved graduation rates last year. Southeast High School’s graduation rate improved from 69.45 percent to 73.77 percent, while Central High School’s rate improved from 20.63 percent to 21.21 percent. All other schools’ graduation rates dropped by 3 to 6 percentage points.

Richard Milburn Academy, an alternative school that was actually voted out of existence by the board this year, showed the most drastic drop in its graduation rate, from 31.55 percent to 12.6 percent.

McCann said the district already has begun to research whether poor FCAT scores may be what’s causing the district’s graduation rate to drop. A passing FCAT score is necessary even for kids who have enough credits and passing class grades. And while students can take the FCAT up to five times in an effort to pass it, not all students are motivated to keep on taking the test, McCann said.

Cathy Smith, Southeast High’s principal, said there are other reasons why students may be struggling to obtain their diploma. The state keeps on changing its graduation requirements, Smith said, making it hard for parents and students to stay on top of all the necessary requirements.

For example, she said, this past year freshman were required for the first time to complete a half-credit of online coursework. Next year, passage of an algebra end-of-course exam will become another requirement for sophomores.

In addition, students who aren’t headed to a four-year university may not understand that a diploma will still serve them well for other vocational tracks such as the military or entering a two-year higher education program.

“Students don’t always understand or explore the possibilities,” Smith said. “If you’ve got a purpose, you’re going to graduate. Our kids need to know there’s something else beyond a high school diploma.”

Smith said increasing students’ awareness of their options is one way Southeast High has helped improve its graduation rate. The school has stepped up its level of communication with all students and their parents to more quickly address the needs of those who are struggling.

Another complicating factor for Manatee County’s graduation rate has to do with a state law passed back in the late 1990s: Manatee County became the only school district in the state that requires kids to stay in school through the age of 18.

McCann credits the law, which was intended to eventually involve about five other school districts, with helping Manatee County increase its graduation rate from 56 percent in the late 1990s to a high of 81.4 in the mid 2000s.

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