On a sunlit June afternoon, Hannah Gainer beamed as she zipped up her scarlet gown. After a senior year filled with perils and pitfalls, Hannah graduated from Pine Forest High School. Without a diploma, Hannah knew she would have had limited opportunities after high school. Hannah forged ahead and embraced the help she got from her principal and guidance counselor. She raised a first semester F in geometry to a B. After four tries, Hannah nailed the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Hannah worked extra hard to earn her diploma, but she gave high praise to Principal Frank Murphy and guidance counselor Kelli Lowe, for prodding, pushing and pulling her along the way. “What they did for me was unbelievable,” said Hannah, 17, who plans to attend Pensacola State College and dreams of becoming a fashion designer. “For them to do these things means a lot to me.” High school completion is, obviously, an important step in a teenager’s life. But in Escambia County, more than 35 percent of students didn’t finish high school with their graduating class in 2013. It was worse for black students, as only 51.4 percent completed high school that year, compared to 71.2 percent for white students, according to data from the Florida Department of Education. On the bright side, Escambia County’s high school graduation rate has risen incrementally in recent years, from 56.2 percent in 2009 to 64.2 in 2013. But the sad truth is that for one out of three high school seniors — and nearly half of black students in Escambia County — there is no diploma after 12 years of school. The result is a generation of young people with limited options and limited earning capacity who lack basic skills needed to enter the world and take care of themselves.
At a time in which accountability and transparency are watchwords for virtually anything government does, it is easy to understand the appeal of graduation rates. In Escambia County, the aberrant graduation rate has been a thorn in the side of school administrators for years. “We are the professionals and we should be able to fix it, but the reality is that we can’t do it by ourselves,” said Carolyn Spooner, director of the district’s high school education. “We have to have the parental involvement, we have to have the community involvement. It is a collaborative effort and if we don’t have that, then it is an uphill battle.” It’s a battle that’s being fought across the state and nation. The high school graduation rate is an important measure of the success of a community’s education system and the quality of its workforce. Numerous studies show unemployment rates are lower and lifetime earnings are substantially higher for high school graduates than for those who don’t finish. Scott Luth, senior vice president of economic development for the Greater Pensacola Chamber of Commerce, said graduation rates are one of many factors companies weigh before moving to a community. “Having a high school diploma impacts earning potential and the type of jobs they can get,” Luth said. “Higher wage-earners’ income trickles down in the economy.” The graduation rate measures the percentage of students who completed school within four years of starting it. It includes standard diplomas but excludes GEDs, both regular and adult, and special diplomas. Starting in 2010-2011, the U.S. Department of Education adopted a new calculation method to develop uniform and comparable graduation rates across the country. This rate currently is used in Florida’s accountability system in the high school grades calculation. Escambia’s graduation rate has remained below the national average over the past decade. In 2013, the national graduation rate rose to 80 percent, its highest level in history. The percentage of students in Florida earning a high school diploma stood at 75.6 in 2013, up from 74.5 percent in 2012.
Cost is clear
The litany of reasons for low graduation rates run the gamut — high absenteeism, poorly engaged students, inadequate parental education, work or family responsibilities, behavior problems, attending a school with low achievement scores. Regardless of the “why,” the cost is clear — and heavy. Educated workers are the basis of economic growth. They are critical sources of innovation and productivity given the pace and nature of technological progress. Studies show that the typical high school graduate will earn more — 50 percent to 100 percent increase in lifetime income — and be less likely to rely on public money for health care and welfare and less likely to be involved in the criminal justice system. Because of those better incomes, graduates contribute more in tax revenue over their lifetime than non-graduates. In today’s competitive economy with high unemployment rates, prospective employees need all the credentials they can get. Having a high school diploma is a necessity. Malcolm Thomas, superintendent of Escambia County schools, understands the dilemma schools face in trying to prepare students for an evolving, complex workforce. The manufacturing jobs for unskilled workers are no longer available, and students today absolutely need, at the very least, to finish high school, learn a trade or go to college to prepare them for the modern job market, Thomas said. “What we expect out of students in the first grade today is no way near what we expected out of a first-grader in my generation,” Thomas said. “As a community we have to realize we always have to keep learning. I don’t think we have that sense as a community.” In neighboring Santa Rosa County, the graduation rates are consistently higher than Escambia and the state’s averages. Santa Rosa’s graduation rate has steadily inched up, from 72.9 percent in 2009 to 78.9 percent in 2013. Black students in Santa Rosa graduated at a rate of 74.1 percent, compared to 78.3 percent for white students. Thomas hears the question of why Escambia schools lag behind Santa Rosa’s. “To start with, we don’t look alike,” he said. “Just look at the demographic differences.” Thomas pointed to Santa Rosa’s higher per capita income, less poverty, less diversity and fewer single-parent households. The poverty level in Escambia as measured by the number of students who qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch reached a staggering 64 percent in 2013, up from 57 percent nearly a decade ago. In Santa Rosa, about 40 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. To qualify for the program in the 2011-12 school year, a family of four’s annual income was $29,055. To highlight the degree of poverty in Escambia County, Thomas pointed out that more than a third of his schools have 80 percent or more of their students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. Only one school in Santa Rosa County has 60 percent of students who qualify for the lunch program. “If you want to be an A or B school, the No. 1 factor of all characteristics is to have less than 30 percent of students with free and reduced-price lunch,” Thomas said. “If you want to have the probability of being an F school, have 70 or 80 percent of students on free and reduced lunch.”
Escambia County’s Pine Forest High School, in the Bellview area west of U.S. 29 on Longleaf Drive, has pockets of poverty among its student body. More than 70 percent of students there qualify for the lunch program. Students graduated at a rate of 60 percent in 2013, about four points below the county’s average. Pine Forest Principal Frank Murphy knows that poverty can affect a school’s grade and graduation but he refuses to use it as an excuse. Murphy put plans in place that helped boost the at-risk graduation rate eight points in one year, from 52 percent in 2012 to 60 percent in 2013. “We spend an enormous amount of time on senior credits and communication with parents and students so that it is very clear what they need in order to be graduates,” Murphy said. Murphy is putting in the work and using creativity to motivate and inspire students to achieve. “A lot of what we did … was just through hard work and dedication, the love that we put forth for our students,” Murphy said. “I know every school has that; we just like to put a personal touch on it.” The personal touch includes assigning counselors to entering freshmen deemed at-risk and tracking them throughout their high school years. They build relationships. They collect data and pinpoint deficiencies to improve. If a student is not proficient in math or reading, the counselors ensure that the student gets tutoring in the subject. It means identifying seniors who need to make up courses through credit recovery. It also means going over each senior’s transcript in detail, making sure everyone has an opportunity to graduate. It’s that kind of attention that helped push students like Hannah Gainer toward a diploma. Murphy assigned guidance counselor Kelli Lowe to make at-risk students her pet projects. She gave lessons and techniques on taking the End of Course exams and the FCAT. She tracked students using data and report cards, transcripts and courses. She scheduled conferences with parents. Murphy realized the vital role that educators play in providing extra help for at-risk students who may not have a lot of support in their homes. “We cannot shut doors on children regardless of what neighborhoods they come from,” he said. “We are servants of the community, and if we were to sit back and not do anything on behalf of these children, we are in the wrong profession.” Things may have turned out differently for Dusty Wiggins if she had found the help that Murphy provided his students at Pine Forest. Wiggins quit school in her senior year at Washington High School in 2012. Wiggins said she rarely missed a day, her grades were good, but she struggled with reading and passing the FCAT because of dyslexia. One day, without consulting the principal or guidance counselors, Wiggins dropped out of school, a decision she came to regret. Now a mother, Wiggins, 19, said she’s able to make ends meet and bring home diapers working as a cashier at a tool and equipment store. She wants to get a GED and become a nursing assistant. “If I had stayed in school maybe I wouldn’t have a kid,” said Wiggins. “I thought it was stupid, but everyone makes mistakes and hopefully I’ll learn from them.”
Cream of the crop
A stone’s throw from Pine Forest High School sits West Florida High School of Advanced Technology. It is the gem of Escambia’s high schools. The students are considered the cream of the crop. They have a rigorous application process, and then are chosen from a lottery. Once selected, they must sign a pledge to work hard, stay in school and away from trouble. Only 38 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch. West Florida is an A school with a 91 percent graduation rate in 2013. Its mission is to prepare students for entry into chosen career fields or college through a combination of learning by meshing academic and technical skills. It’s like a vocational school on high-tech and profession-driven steroids. The school offers 12 academies, from aerospace engineering to sports medicine. Even with the highest graduation rate in the county, Principal Eric Smith wants to aim higher. “It’s always heartbreaking to lose one,” Smith said. “Out of that 91 percent it hurts us to lose that 9 percent. But there are a great number of them who come back and finish.” Like Smith, Thomas laments when any student fails to graduate. While the 64 percent graduation rate leaves a dark cloud over the district’s morale, Thomas finds bright spots to highlight:
- Advanced Placement and dual enrollment participation has increased 33 percent. In 2013, the College Board recognized the district for leading the state in increasing AP enrollment.
- Career academies increased from 13 in 2008 to more than 60 in 2014. Academy choices are available at every middle and high school in the district.
- Every new teacher is provided a master teacher as a mentor to model and ensure that the new teacher has a chance to become a quality instructor.
“We’re changing the destinies of kids,” Thomas said. “We have an opportunity, and if we don’t do it, I don’t think anyone else will.” Looking down the road, Thomas hopes to improve graduate rates, but he knows the requirements to graduate will get tougher. Next year students will have to earn one credit in algebra and one in geometry. They also must have courses in biology and a rigorous science course, such as chemistry. To help in the effort, the district offered summer school for at-risk eighth-graders for the first time this year. The students spent the summer at the school they would attend in the fall, learning the ropes and getting a head start in the classroom by taking a course to earn a credit. During the school year, if a student is failing, he will be eligible to make it up in a night class or online. To keep students in school, disciplinary action will be curtailed for violations involving cell phones and dress codes to reduce the number of 10-day suspensions. If a student is suspended, he or she can make up work to stay on track in class.
Some education reformers believe schools can increase graduation rates and prevent students from dropping out by replacing larger schools with smaller learning communities where low-income students can get more attention and instruction from dedicated teachers. Evidence gathered over the years seems to suggest that some of the better approaches need to start earlier. For example: Preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, who are fed and taught in small groups, followed up with home visits by teachers and with group meetings of parents. Thomas was aware of the deficiencies in the district when he was elected superintendent in 2008. “I knew I was going to face a big elephant, and how do you eat him?” he said. “One bite at a time.” Thomas believes to improve graduation rates requires the entire community. When policymakers, parents, educators, business leaders and other important education stakeholders work together and focus on programs and reforms that are proven to make a difference, everyone can ensure that Escambia County schools rise to the top, Thomas believes. He wants fewer people sitting on the sidelines criticizing and debating statistics and numbers, and more people rolling up sleeves to go to work to help. “We have to quit throwing rocks and making everyone feel like they’re the biggest losers in town,” he said. “I will accept my responsibility for my role in the School District. If it’s bad news I’m going to own up to it. If it’s good news I’m going to share that, too.” For students like Hannah Gainer, the good news is that under difficult circumstances and with diligence and dedication, she got her diploma. “It was a top priority for my family and me,” she said. “It’s so hard to make it today and you really can’t get a good job without a diploma.”