Where did they go? Disappearance of likely-to-fail seniors from Manatee’s school rosters has state officials wanting to know more.

Manatee County Superintendent Diana Greene says claims of book-cooking to help graduation rates are based on not understanding the numbers.
Manatee County Superintendent Diana Greene says claims of book-cooking to help graduation rates are based on not understanding the numbers.

While Manatee County’s high school graduation rate has been on a steady uptick over the past five years, there is another number on the rise that has drawn the attention of Department of Education board members.

State officials want to know why Manatee County and a handful of other districts have exceptionally high numbers of seniors in danger of not graduating who transferred out of the school system during the final month of the school year.

The big question: Are districts like Manatee County moving likely-to-fail students off the books to boost the all-important graduation rate?

Manatee was one of 10 districts raising eyebrows among state education leaders for suspiciously high numbers of disappearing likely-to-fail seniors. At the March 22 State Board of Education meeting, Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart told board members that officials were expanding an initial data analysis involving Manatee and nine other counties to the entire state, a move board members affirmed as necessary.

“I think it is a very serious issue and I am glad you are taking the steps that you are,” state board member Gary Chartrand said. “That’s a very serious allegation we hope we get to the bottom of.”

But Manatee Superintendent Diana Greene says claims of book-cooking are based on not understanding the numbers and that state leaders are questioning systems they themselves put into place.

Almost all of Manatee County’s transfers at the end of the year are students who were dual-enrolled in Smart Horizons, an accredited online private school, during the second semester of their senior year, Greene said. Smart Horizons students take electives and career-training courses while at the same time taking core classes in a Manatee high school, completing remediation and retaking the state test.

If the student never passes the state test, has a 2.0 grade-point average in their core classes and successfully completes the Smart Horizons career training program, they will be transferred out of Manatee schools at the end of the year and earn a diploma from Smart Horizons. If they pass the state test while in Smart Horizons, they will earn a diploma from a Manatee high school, and the program will have served as a backup plan to ensure the student doesn’t join the ranks of the degree-less, Greene said.

For state leaders to question whether districts were manipulating numbers didn’t surprise Greene.

“This is a cycle. It seems that every time we put in different options for kids to graduate then and our graduation rate starts to look good and it’s getting better, then we get this issue,” Superintendent Diana Greene said.

“Would you prefer dropouts?”

In Manatee County, at least 515 seniors since 2013-14 who did not pass their state-mandated math or English tests and would not have otherwise graduated, were transferred into Smart Horizons at the end of the school year. In the 2014-15 school year, 95 percent of those transfers took place after May 1.

Numbers like that seemed fishy to former state representative Janet Adkins, who, while looking at Nassau School District’s numbers, wondered why a senior a couple weeks away from officially failing to graduate would transfer to a private or home school. Put within the context of Florida’s graduation rate arms race, with rates dramatically improving year to year, so many students transferring at the last minute seemed like a smoking gun — evidence of districts fudging the numbers to boost the rate.

Last August, Adkins requested for the DOE to review the data, saying in a letter to Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart, “I believe that any organized effort to commit fraud that results in the disbursement of state dollars for results that have been artificially created needs to have a closer review.”

But Manatee County’s leaders are frustrated at a claim of fraud, saying that the numbers are being misunderstood and a successful program is being cast as a scheme to fudge the numbers.

“Not only is this helping a student, it’s helping the economic health of our community,” Greene said. “Would you prefer those 200 students be dropouts?”

Stacey Sharples, director of admission at the State College of Florida, said SCF has students attending who graduated with Smart Horizons degrees, and she said the program allows poor test takers a route to higher education and vocational training.

“I saw it as a savior, that was my personal opinion,” Sharples said. “These are kids that would otherwise get certificates of completion, but by going through the Smart Horizons option, they are able to go to college.”

And Deputy Superintendent of Curriculum Cynthia Saunders said Smart Horizons is a state-approved program, and the district is following the rules laid out by the state. Smart Horizons is accredited through AdvancED, a non-governmental organization that accredits schools and school districts.

“They allow this, so we are following it,” Saunders said. “If somebody is questioning it, and the DOE decides this shouldn’t be in place anymore, then we’ll change it.”

Popular route in Manatee County

Manatee County was among the top districts in the state when it comes to using programs like Smart Horizons in 2014-15, according to the data compiled after Adkins’ inquiry.

Among the findings:

▪ In 2014-15, 202 Manatee County seniors who did not pass one or both of the ELA Grade 10 or Algebra 1 were withdrawn to private schools.

▪ Only Dade County, with roughly nine times as many seniors, transferred more seniors in 2014-15.

▪ Manatee County had the eighth-highest percentage in the state of students in 2014-15 who had failed a state test and were withdrawn to private schools.

By comparison, Sarasota County uses Smart Horizons as well, but has only assigned 59 students to the program since 2015, according to district spokesman Scott Ferguson. Manatee has transferred 392 students during the same time period, according to Manatee’s office of communications.

The program costs $1,295 per student license. In 2014 the board authorized spending up to $211,065 on licenses, which would amount to roughly 160 diplomas. The amount the board has authorized the school to spend on licenses with Smart Horizons has nearly doubled since then. In November the board gave the district approval to spend up to $395,250 to purchase as many as 50 licenses per high school.

Despite the tenor of the state-level board members questioning the legitimacy of transferring students into private programs, Greene said Manatee will continue providing the program as long as it is approved by the DOE.

“Our graduation rate is improving, and once again they want to attack the other pathways for students to be successful,” Green said. “Politics is making this about graduation rate. For us, this is simply what’s the best path for our students.”

Ryan McKinnon: 941-745-7027, @JRMcKinnon