Officials at the Leon County School Board have responded to a Tallahassee Reports story published about a decline in high school graduation rates.
The report, based on information released earlier this month by the Florida Department of Education (FDOE), showed that high school graduation rates in Leon County dropped by 3.7% for 2016-17.
Gillian Gregory, Assistant Superintendent of Academic Services for Leon Schools, explained to TR that the decline in graduation rates was, in part, due to the fact that FDOE no longer allows for students who receive diplomas through alternative methods to be counted as graduates.
The change in the calculation was dictated by a new rule in an education bill passed last spring by the Florida Legislature.
Gregory explained that beginning in 9th grade the academic performance of students are tracked and based on evaluations and/or test results, an intervention can be initiated.
If the intervention determines that the student may not graduate, the student is provided a different path that can lead to a diploma.
This path involves a partnership with an alternative school, such as EdOptions. Alternative schools provide online coursework that can lead to a diploma without passing state exams which are normally required for graduation.
Gregory said this program costs the school about $1300 per student and during 2016-17 approximately 86 students took this path.
Research by TR found that a number of school districts use this approach. For example, Smart Horizons – an online alternative school – has partnerships with about 25 Florida school districts and serve about 1,000 students.
Superintendent Rocky Hanna, who said the program was in place when he was elected, told TR he is not sure if the program will continue.
Gregory said the alternative path provides a diploma to students that would have otherwised not graduated.
State Investigation of Student Transfers
Journalist Andrew Atterbury, with TCPPalm.com, recently reported that in 2016 the Department of Education began looking into districts where students transferred to a nonpublic school or a home-education program in the second half of their senior year.
In March of 2017, state Education Commissioner Pam Stewart expanded the inquiry statewide that the findings will eventually be presented to the Board of Education.
Atterbury also reported that Dennis Kramer, director of the University of Florida Education Policy Research Center, said transferring students right before graduation is a common practice in many states.
Typically, districts do this to give students more support — or to game graduation-rate calculations, Kramer said. More often than not, districts are trying to help students, Kramer wrote.
Kramer said he believes the new rule is an attempt to increase reporting accuracy across Florida.
But the state could be better off creating a new category — a transfer rate to accompany graduation figures — instead of penalizing schools by labeling students as dropouts even though they did graduate, Kramer said.
“Counting them as the same,” he said, “does both the sending and receiving school a disservice.”