Graduation Rates Rising, Escambia Closing Gap

Jan 12, 2020

Pensacola High School's 2019 holds their graduation ceremony at the Pensacola Bay Center.
Credit Pensacola High School

The Florida Department of Education has released graduation rates for 2019. Statewide, there was a slight increase of .08 percentage points to 86.9%.

With one exception, there also were gains in graduation rates in school districts across region.

“Well, the news is that for 2019 our graduation rate for on-time graduation is 84.8%,” said Escambia County School Superintendent Malcolm Thomas. This marks a 4.1% increase of 2018, when the rate was 80.7%.

The greater milestone, according to Thomas, is the dramatic 30 percent increase in graduation rates over the course of his three terms in office.

“When we began in 2008, the graduation rate was 55%. So we’ve moved from 55% to 85% over the last decade and it’s a great tribute to our students and the parents and teachers that have worked with them,” he said.

Thomas is also proud to point out that the subgroup that has moved up most substantially during his tenure is African American students.

“Back in 2008, they were graduating on time at a rate of 44%.  This year, they’re at 78.3%,” declared the superintendent. “That’s why you’re seeing the progress. It’s all students across all subgroups at all schools, moving so they can get out of school in exactly four years.”

Bringing that forward to present day and reiterate the rise for black students, Thomas highlights the results at Pensacola High School.

“Their (PHS) graduation rate is 91.2, Pensacola high school. Outstanding. And, again, you’re seeing the influence of African American students graduating on time, because a large percentage of their traditional population are African American students.  And, outside of West Florida Hight School; they are the highest of the traditional high schools, 91.2,” Thomas explained.

West Florida High School has the highest rate, with 99.4% of its students graduating on time.

Further, every school in Escambia now exceeds the 2018 district average of 80.7%, with all of them now 83% and above.

Thomas, who is in his final year as superintendent, credits the district’s success to slow and steady, year-over-year progress and the development of a system for improvement that’s sustainable.

Specific initiatives over the last decade include increased summer school make-up opportunities. Additionally, student tracking has greatly improved.

Archive photo of Escambia County Superintendent Malcolm Thomas at the studios of WUWF.
Credit Sandra Averhart / WUWF Public Media

“We’ve shifted from when we start looking at students for graduation planning; we now do that after the first semester of ninth grade. So, if you fail a class first semester of ninth grade, we build a plan to help you get back on track. We’ve hired graduation coaches,” said Thomas of the measures implemented in the Escambia County School District.

“But, I think one of the big factors is career academies.  It gives students a reason to finish high school, get out of there in four years and move on to post-secondary training, college or into the workforce, now that you’ve found your niche.”

“I think this is the 12th year in a row that graduation rates in Santa Rosa County have increased,” proclaimed Tim Wyrosdick, superintendent of the Santa Rosa County School District, who is also wrapping his third and final term in office.

Just since 2015, Santa Rosa’s graduation rate has jumped nearly six percent, from 83% in 2015 to the current rate of 88.9%. 

“That is a significant increase when you’re talking about graduating more seniors, and obviously graduating them at a higher rate, we’re very pleased with that. 

Santa Rosa County School Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick.
Credit Santa Rosa County School District

Wyrosdick says from the beginning his administration has focused on initiatives to help students keep pace with the increasing rigor and requirements for graduation.

“So, we’ve slowed down some of that rigor by dividing courses into half courses and making sure they have a slower pace,” he said. “We’ve also added some very intensive curriculum assistance and interventions within the four year period that a student is in high school.”

Counting those who take longer than four years (including those retained and reenrolled after dropping out), Wyrosdick estimates 95% or more of the district’s students earn diplomas.

In Santa Rosa, Gulf Breeze High Schoolhad the best graduation rate in the district, coming in at 98.1%. Just behind at 97% was Milton High School, which Wyrosdick called a model of intervention.

“Milton High School has a very targeted plan of looking at students as they begin middle school. We don’t wait until they hit high school,” he explained. “We look very clearly at students who come out of third, fourth, and fifth grade, where they are mathematically, wher e they are in that English-language arts and we tailor their middle school preparation specifically to meet those needs as they enter high school.”

Elsewhere around the region, Walton matched Santa Rosa with a graduation rate of 88.9%, a huge increase of more than 14% since 2015.

Okaloosa County’s graduation rate dipped slightly from 88.1% to 87.9%.

While Escambia still lags behind its neighboring districts, Superintendent Malcolm Thomas says he’s not really concerned about that. 

“Our demographics don’t match up equally with anyone else in the region, so those aren’t equivalent comparisons,” Thomas point out.  “I mean certainly, we’d like to be at or above the state average. We’re certainly closing the gap.”

As of 2019, the Escambia County School District is now just two percentage points behind the state average.