A King’s wish is granted, a cause for celebration during Black History Month. The Department of Education released the Florida Public High School Graduation Rates for 2010-11, which reveals minority graduation rates are up by 10 percent and Marion County leads the state.
Story: John Sotomayor
Dr. Martin Luther King had a dream, and that dream inspired humanity. As the civil rights leader delivered his historic speech on August 28, 1963 at the base of the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC, he stood tall and spoke with authority. His words rung so loudly, they would be heard for generations to come. “And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
It is part of the American dream to acquire a quality higher education. For the creed to be true, then all men – and all women – should be deemed equal in the eyes of the law for the opportunity to acquire the goal of a proper education and have access to the resources to pursue advanced knowledge. Florida and particularly Marion County, are on track. The Department of Education recently reported the Florida Public High School Graduation Rates for 2010-11, revealed that minority graduation rates are up by 10 percent. Even better news for our area, Marion County leads the state.
Dr. King’s speech continued, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” In Marion County, King’s “children” are graduating high school – many with honors – and going on to college. Students like Madrika Allen and Jordan Anderson of Dunnellon High School and Daisy Martinez and Karando Douglas of Lake Weir High School. This is good news that warrants a moment to take pause and celebrate this accomplishment. More so, it warrants reflection on the cause, to take stock on the people and the programming that keeps Dr. King’s dream alive.
Graphs and Stats
Deputy Superintendant of Schools Diana Greene received the Florida National Governor’s Association (NGA) Compact Graduation Rate record in December 2011 atop a pile of other end-of-the-year data for review. The line graph displayed prominently on page 1 instantly drew a smile on her face. It revealed the good news that she wanted to see, the Four-Year NGA Graduation Rate from 2006-07 through 2010-11 rose 10 percent – from 70.3 percent to 80.1 percent.
Better still, page 3 which indicates the graduation rate by race/ethnicity and gender, indicates that black and Hispanic minority students were also up by more than 10 percent – black female 62.7 to 72.3 percent, black male 51.0 to 64.3 percent (total: 56.9 to 68.4 percent), Hispanic female 68.7 to 80.2 percent, and Hispanic male 60.8 to 74.5 percent (total: 64.3 to 77.3 percent). Page 4 of the study indicates that Florida implements a longitudinal data system while other states do not, thus Florida follows the most precise methodology for calculating graduation rates in the nation overall. Pages 14 through 16 indicate the county high school dropout rate is less than 1 percent.
One more thing, the charts on pages 9 through 13 indicated that Marion County led the state. Greene had reason to smile.
People and Programs
Speaking strictly for minority students, Greene says in the last year Marion County has had more minority students take advanced courses and teachers are pushing them to take the higher-level courses citing the early college program offered at West Port High School.
The educators not only push the students into graduation but also more rigorous coursework to be more successful. Every high school has a Magna type program and more students are a part of those programs than ever before.
The International Baccalaureate Diploma Program (IB) is a strict pre-university study that began at Vanguard but is now offered at other high schools such as Lake Weir High School. The Advanced International Certificate of Education out of the University of Cambridge (ACE), a sister program of IB, is offered at Belleview and North Marion; and the Engineering, Manufacturing Instructional Technology (EMET) is offered at Forest High School, which offers the highest number of AP courses offered in the district. Dunnellon High School has the Power Academy as well as AP courses. Every high school thus has the opportunity for minority students to take more rigorous coursework.
The challenge is to provide the support. Many students are not aware of these opportunities or motivated to search for the programs. That doesn’t start in high school; rather it begins in late elementary/early middle school where these students need to be groomed to be ready for those types of courses. Some students do not pick up good study habits automatically, “you have to teach them and model it for them” said Greene. The students must be shown they have potential to be successful in those high level courses. It is time-consuming. They have got to prepare to put in the time reading, studying material and executing projects.
According to Executive Director of Secondary Education for Marion County Public Schools David Ellers and Executive Director of Student Services Mark Vianello, graduation rates in Marion County have generally gone up because of extra effort being put forward and provide students an opportunity to earn additional credit and/or to earn credit that they may be lacking because of poor academic performance earlier in their high school career. Generally, schools have been providing after-school opportunities; credit recovery opportunities, which allows students to make up lost credits in order to graduate on time – such as the 2011 established on-line credit recovery; as well as the extended summer opportunities made available to students have contributed toward the overall trend to go up in the district. The school administers monitor the data closely to implement “best practices” problem-solving solutions in order to monitor out-of-school suspensions and office discipline referrals to create a campus environment of minimum disruptions.
Although administrators like Greene fear “critical needs” dollars will be cut for after-school opportunities open to students to take enrichment as well as credit-recovery programs so they can catch up if needed, they will do what they can to maintain the programs.
“That is what we should be doing – removing the road blocks so students have access to opportunities,” said Greene.
At Dunnellon High School, Principal Micelle Lewis and her education staff make an effort to utilize unique motivational tools. Lewis personally believes as the instructional leader at Dunnellon High School that the human aspect of their job is the most important aspect of their work – the human contact and praise and encouragement that allows those students who have the potential to be what they would have called a “drop out” to make connections and develop reasons to come to school beyond their diploma.
“I never want a student to believe that if they just didn’t come into school tomorrow or ever again, that no one there would miss them,” said Lewis.
At Lake Weir High School, Principal Cynthia Saunders credits the mentoring programs offered at the school for the increase in their graduation rates. They work diligently to make sure none of the students “fall through the cracks.” Saunders notes that 78 percent of the student body receives free or reduced lunch, which indicates a high poverty level on “this side of the county.” For that reason, Saunders feels it is even more instrumental that they make sure the students take full advantage of a quality education so that they are able to provide a better life for themselves when they enter the university, military or workforce.
The starting point is to make sure the students earn a high school diploma. “We are very pleased that we have a number of students meeting that goal and moving forward with their lives,” said Saunders. Educators like Saunders and Lewis make a personal effort to get involved when the students are not in class or their grades are slipping so they are motivated to stay on track.
Vianello believes that the Department of Student Services had a direct positive impact on the 10 percent gains on the minority student population in 2010-2011. Last year, the student social workers identified 716 students that were in the bottom quarter of the FCAT scores. Vianello did not have a breakdown of the percentage of minority students in the 716 total, however the purpose was to identify those 716 students in order to divide them among their social workers assigned at each school averaging 10 – 20 students per social worker.
The social workers met with the students’ parents, developed an attendance plan, and checked regularly with the students. A review of the data at the end of the year for those particular students indicated an average 8-day gain for each student over the course of the year. That is a significant difference of time being in school thus keeping the students engaged in their academic career. That study addresses the importance of positive relationships, which he affirms as Lewis and Saunders have that are essential to make an impact on students, improve their academic records and the overall graduation rate, thus preparing them for life ahead.
Editor’s Note: Marion County was recently ranked 44th among Florida’s 67 school districts in 2011 by the Department of Education. The unprecedented, controversial ranking system devised by Governor Rick Scott and Florida Education Commissioner Gerald Robinson ranks the districts solely on FCAT scores which many educators do not agree present an accurate reflection of the district’s success because other factors need to be considered, including the vast difference in socioeconomics. The ranking is irrelevant to our report as Kevin Christian, Marion County School District spokesman attests saying it doesn’t compare students or districts on a level playing field. He notes that all 7 of Marion County’s mainstream public high schools – from which our article is based ¬¬– earned enough points for an A grade in 2011; however, the high schools are ranked along with every other school that comprises the district. To that, Superintendent of Schools Jim Yancey said the district has made great strides in the last few years, including raising the graduation rate higher than the state average. As well, 76 percent of the district’s schools received “A” and “B” grades on the latest FCAT, and all traditional public high schools in the area earned enough points to be “A” schools (though four were docked a full letter grade for lowest-quartile performance). Just as importantly, the district dropout rate is less than one percent, and this year the district has seven finalists in the prestigious National Merit Scholarship Program, all of which also affirms the position of this article.
[Sidebar] The Students
The hard work of the educators and the advanced programs they encourage are paying off with minority students.
Jordan Anderson, a senior at Dunnellon High School born in Jamaica, can balance academics with athletics successfully due to the requirements placed on him to keep his grades up in order to play basketball and football, and because of the support he gets from his teachers and parents. Anderson maintains above a 3.0 Grade Point Average (GPA) and is on track for a full scholarship to play football at Colby College in Maine where he plans to study business.
Madrika Allen, a senior at Dunnellon High School, plans to attend Florida State University after graduation to study accounting. She attributes Dunnellon High School’s collective focus and drive on their sports program with contributing to the increase in academic performance. Allen played softball and has a 3.4 GPA. The school provides additional opportunities to train in their selective fields. Allen participated in the Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA) district competition last year. Categories included debate, business ethics, business software, and accounting, the latter of which Allen participated.
Daisy Martinez, a senior at Lake Weir High School with a 3.6 GPA, takes Anatomy Honors and Government Honors classes. Martinez is on track to graduate and go on to college. She plans to study pre-vet at CF. She is a recipient of the Take Stock in Children Scholarship so has all four years of college already paid in advance through her work over the past three years with the Ambassador Program. Recipients must apply in 8th grade to be enrolled throughout their four years of high school preparing for college and must meet a financial need requirement as well as a minimum GPA and academic requirement.
Karando Douglas, a senior at Lake Weir High School born in Jamaica with a 3.3 GPA, takes English Honors and United States Government Honors classes. Douglas is a three-sport athlete and has lettered all four years of high school. He has played varsity football, varsity soccer, and varsity track. He came in second place in the 4 by 1 relay track meet last year. He is currently offered duel scholarships for football and track and will go on to play both sports on the collegiate level.