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Escambia Graduation Rates Are Rising But Still Below State Average

School districts across Florida have turned out their latest crop of graduates. When it comes to graduation rates, the Escambia County School District has been working to catch up to the state and neighboring counties. For an update on how the district is doing, WUWF recently caught up with Superintendent Malcolm Thomas.

With one more to go, Superintendent Thomas has attended 13 graduation ceremonies for the Escambia County Class of 2017, including those held at the Pensacola Bay Center for the district’s seven traditional high schools.

At each commencement, Thomas touted the accomplishments of that school’s graduating class. Here’s what he said to the graduates of Pensacola High School.

“When we calculate the percent of students that are (going to) graduate with a GPA, a cumulative grade-point-average, greater than 4.0, would you believe me when I told you it was 28 percent of you are graduating with that kind of a GPA,” Thomas proudly asked the PHS graduates.

That 28 percent is not surprising for PHS, which is home to the International Baccalaureate or IB program and this year produced 12 national merit finalists for the first time and four valedictorians with GPAs of 5.45.

At PHS and throughout the district, Superintendent Thomas says there’s a lot to be proud of.

“We had several schools where over 50 percent of the class graduating with a cumulative grade point average that’s above a 3.0,” said Thomas.

In that category, the best result was at West Florida High School, where 64 percent or nearly two-thirds of graduates had GPA’s of at least 3.0.  It takes a 2.0 to graduate.

“Many schools where you could have better than a straight "A" average and not be in top 10 percent of the class,” Thomas said. “So, that again talks about the rigor and the expectations that are occurring.”

Thomas credits increased enrollment opportunities in Advanced Placement courses, honors courses, and dual enrollment. District-wide, high-achieving students have earned more than $35 million in scholarships, including almost $13 million at PHS.

On the downside, there were three schools where only about one-third of the graduates had a 3.0 or better GPA.

When it comes to the graduation rate for this year, the data won’t be available until November.

In the meantime, the district is still working with the graduation rate for 2016, which was at 76 (76.1) percent.

That figure from the Florida Department of Education is still below the state rate of nearly 81 (80.7) percent, and it trails Santa Rosa’s rate of almost 86 (85.7) percent and Okaloosa’s 84 (84.4) percent.

Thomas says that number (76 percent) also represents a steady incline since he took over as superintendent nine years ago.

“In 2008, we were at 55 percent of our students graduating on time,” he said. “You see when we talk about graduation rate, that’s really what we’re talking about; not the number who graduate, but the percent who graduate in exactly four years. So, we’ve moved from a little over half to over three-quarters of our students graduating on time, and we’re very proud of that work.”

Most of Escambia County’s traditional schools already have graduation rates of over 80 percent. When the data is compiled later this year, Thomas hopes to finally break that 80 percent threshold overall and break the state average, too.

Their efforts include closing the graduation gap among the district’s African American students.

“Eight or nine years ago, that number was in the 40’s, and, in the last year we have data (2016), they’re up to 64 percent,” Thomas said. “That means we still have work to do. But, when you think we had less than half and now we have over two-thirds of those African American students graduating on time, that’s significant progress.”

For those students who are struggling to meet the (2.0) threshold for graduation, the district has adopted a number of new policies. One of them removed the age restriction (at least 16 years old) and now allows all students to make up courses - at night.

“If you fail a course first semester, second semester you can go to night school and take the course again,” said the superintendent. “If you take the course again, you can remove the “F” and replace it with the new grade that you’ve earned. That’s fair for the student, gives them a chance to have a “do-over.”

Thomas says if a student does well, they can get their grade point average up and move on track to on-time graduation.

Additionally, the district now offers two Summer School sessions, one in June and one in July.  There will be a graduation ceremony for those students on July 20.

Another step the district has taken is the hiring of graduation coaches.

“Graduation coaches identify students in the ninth grade, that are at risk, falling behind on their GPA, can’t pass the state test, falling behind on their core academic classes. And, they sit with the students and their families and we make a plan to get the student on track.”

Looking ahead, preparation for the 2018 school year is already underway. Their efforts include combing over the recently released scores from this year’s state assessment tests.

Representative of the district’s progress and continued need for improvement, the results were a mixed bag. For example, Escambia students improved ten percentage points in Algebra 1 for grades 4-12, with 51 percent scoring at Level 3 or above. However, for eighth-grade math, only 25 percent scored at that level.

Teachers will be welcomed back on August 2, with the first day of classes set for Aug. 10.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.