Graduation rate and school grade soar at Milton High School

Milton High School Prinicipal Mike Thorpe

One of the major initiatives Milton High School Prinicipal Mike Thorpe started was to focus on working one-on-one with students and teachers to improve the quality of education there. / Photo by Michael Spooneybarger

Editor's note: Mike Thorpe was honored as Florida's 2015 Innovative Principal of the Year by the Florida Council of Instructional Technology Leaders. In last year's Pensacola metro report, Reggie Dogan profiled Thorpe's work in turning Milton High School around, which included raising graduation rates and improving the school's grade from a D to an A. 

Here's the story:

In 2009, Milton High School almost failed.

The school got a D under the state’s grading system, a drop of a letter grade from the previous year.

In 2010, Milton’s grade soared to an A.

As much as Principal Mike Thorpe celebrates the school’s top rating, he’s even prouder of the work they’ve done with at-risk students, raising their graduation rates by double digits in four years.

Over the past decade there have been numerous initiatives at the local, state and national level to improve the nation's graduation rate, particularly among historically underserved student populations.

The high school graduation rate, a key metric in the Studer Community Institute Dashboard, is an important measure of the success of a community's education system and the quality of its workforce.

While Milton’s overall graduation rate in 2012 was 78.4 percent, the rate for at-risk students was a dismal 54 percent.

That was unacceptable, Thorpe recalled. He poured his energy into raising at-risk students’ graduation rates.

In 2013, the score increased 20 points, to 74 percent.

Milton’s overall graduation rate rose in 2013 to 82.7 percent, nearly three points higher than the county’s rate at 78.9 percent.

Thorpe said administrators and teachers have to understand the issues at-risk students are dealing with to help them achieve success.

“Dealing with poverty is tough," Thorpe said.  "It’s hard for a kid to think about algebra if he’s worrying about if he’s going to get fed at night.”

Improving Milton High School was a collaborative effort that included city and civic leaders who  organized the City of Milton Education Committee. The Santa Rosa County School District hired a new principal. The principal and his staff rolled up their sleeves and went to work.

“A lot of folks asked, ‘Hey, what’s the secret?’ ” said Thorpe. “Well, there is no one secret. We feel like it’s a mixture of a lot of things.”

One of those things, according to Thorpe, was making education personal -— literally.

That meant principals spent time poring over data, meeting individually with teachers and students.

That meant teachers not only taught, but also reached out and touched students in nearly every aspect of their lives.

Under Thorpe’s leadership, the school identified key problems.

They targeted under-performing and at-risk students and worked harder to help them; they raised graduation rates and school ratings; they increased the number of students earning dual enrollment degrees or college credits by 130 students in five years.

“You have to do like Mr. Thorpe has done: take those who are struggling and give them a hand,” said Milton Mayor Guy Thompson, one of the founders of the education committee. “We want people to know that we are getting as good an education as anywhere.”

Tim Wyrosdick, superintendent of Santa Rosa schools, said Thorpe’s work and success are emblematic of what’s taking place throughout the county.

“Mike has infinite knowledge of and love for this community,” Wyrosdick said. “He’s able to bring community leaders and groups together for the common good.”

Making it work

At the beginning of the 2009-2010 school year, Milton administrators and education committee members met once a month to find some quick fixes.

They raised money for a lighted sign on the edge of campus. They bought equipment to increase technology. They held celebration luncheons for teachers.

Milton was the only school in Northwest Florida without tennis courts. The city built the school the best tennis courts in the county. They realized that for the community to thrive, the school had to strive to be better.

“People don’t realize how important it is to have premium schools,” Thompson said.  “Milton High School is an important heartbeat to our city and community.”

Randy Jorgenson, staff to the education committee, said the bond among the school, city and community can’t be underestimated.

Good schools attract residents who eat in restaurants, shop in stores and buy houses and cars, he said.

While the committee played an important role in helping the school improve, Jorgenson said the credit ultimately goes to Thorpe and his staff.

“The success of the school is because of the investment of the people who work there,” said Jorgenson, director of planning for the City of Milton.

The power of leadership

No one person or group takes credit for Milton’s turnaround. The education committee gives kudos to Thorpe. Thorpe points to his teachers, staff and students.

No matter who gets the praise, everyone agrees it started with the leadership change in 2009. Thorpe was the right person at the right time to take the helm at Milton.

Thorpe grew up in Milton. He attended Hobbs Middle School. He played football and baseball at Milton High School. A mixture of brawn and brains, Thorpe excelled in math and science in the classroom.

He dreamed of becoming an astronaut, but a stroke six weeks before his high school graduation changed the course of his life.

He went on to Auburn University but left school to get married. He ended up earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of West Florida.

After college, Thorpe taught math at Holley-Navarre and Milton High schools. He taught web design and TV production at Milton, before moving into administration.

When the call came for him to step in as principal, Thorpe was ready.

“Things worked out exactly the way I would have wanted it to be,” he said.

Among the poorest schools in Santa Rosa, half of the 1,740 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, which means their families fall below the federal poverty level.

Of the 90 teachers, nearly 40 percent have advanced college degrees. Thorpe put in a plan to take advantage of that talent.

Thorpe and his three assistants divided the students among themselves, about 22 apiece. The teachers made each of their students a personal project.

At least three times a year, the principals and teachers met to track students’ progress. They broke down data for every class and student. They kept eyes on attendance and discipline, set goals for every nine weeks, and talked about the students’ trials and triumphs.

Thorpe said he met with nearly 100 students a week to see how they were performing and where they may need help.

If teachers found students struggling in any area academically or personally, the students had one-on-one sessions with principals to discuss the problem and find solutions.

“We have real conversations,” Thorpe said. “We might say, ‘Hey Jimmy, tell me why you are struggling when it comes to cells in biology.’ Kids have to be accountable for their performance.”

School Board member Diane Scott said Thorpe has been a catalyst for change.

“He eats, sleeps and drinks Milton High School,” said Scott, whose District 1 covers the school. “He’s very engaged with students and that’s contagious.”

Scott recalled that Thorpe made only one request after becoming principal. He wanted a new science wing.

It took five years, but the science wing opens this school year. Students can take dual enrollment classes, upper-level courses, advanced placement calculus and work in labs comparable to what they’ll find in college.

Thorpe won’t rest on his laurels. He has his sights on ensuring that every student who enters Milton earns a high school diploma.

“Lots of people thought Milton High School would never be an A school,” Thorpe said. “Folks at this school never say ‘never.’ We expect to get a 100 percent graduation rate, and whatever it takes, we quite simply won’t rest until that happens.”

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