Principal Alondra Beatty-Woodall said getting more seniors to a diploma is a top priority.
Tampa Bay Times | by Jeffrey S. Solochek | January 19, 2021
Schools across Florida cheered strong improvements in the percentage of seniors who graduated last spring, bolstered by an easing of testing requirements.
The state and school districts saw historic highs, with graduation rates of 90 percent and higher, according to numbers released earlier this month.
Pasco County’s graduation rate hit 89.9 percent. Some schools in the district saw increases of more than 6 percentage points.
“Year after year we are seeing steady progress,” superintendent Kurt Browning said in a news release.
The district’s Hudson High School didn’t follow the trend.
Routinely the school with the district’s lowest graduation rate, Hudson High saw a 5 percentage-point drop in 2020, to 76 percent — below where it was in 2017.
No other traditional high school in the four-county region dropped nearly that far or landed below the 80 percent mark. In Pinellas County, every high school had at least a 90 percent graduation rate, including those in the district’s most high-poverty areas.
Hudson High School’s Class of 2016 held its graduation ceremony at the USF Sun Dome. More recently, the school has struggled to improve its graduation rate. [ Pasco County school district ]
At Pasco’s Fivay High School, which serves a community similar to Hudson High’s, the graduation rose to 89 percent from 83 percent— the district’s largest jump.
The drop at Hudson “is very concerning,” School Board member Alison Crumbley said. “It supports why we are doing what we are doing.”
The board recently approved refocusing Hudson High with the advanced Cambridge Programme, in connection with the elementary and middle schools on its campus. The complex also will offer social services as part of a community partnership initiative.
Hudson’s new principal, Alondra Beatty-Woodall, said tackling the issue of on-time graduation is one of her top priorities. Having joined the school in the summer, Beatty-Woodall said she did not have any insights yet as to why Hudson has struggled to get its seniors across the finish line.
“I’m looking at it deeply,” said Beatty-Woodall, a Hudson High alumna. “I feel like our staff is on board. They’re ready to do what it takes. This has to be a constant focus.”
She added that she’s talking to students, too, to learn more of their concerns and the hurdles they face.
“They’ll give it to you straight,” she said.
Beatty-Woodall sounded optimistic that the new academic approach and the added services would positively impact the school. She preferred to look ahead than to dwell on past problems, though she acknowledged those must be fixed.
“I just know there’s going to be a great future,” she said.
Bringing a new culture to a school can yield positive results, said Fivay principal Jason Joens.
Joens took over Fivay, which sits 3 miles from Hudson, in 2019 after it had fallen to a D grade from the state. The school had significant discipline problems, too, landing in the news too frequently for Joens’ taste.
He suggested his school’s improved performance came as the result of setting higher expectations and letting everyone — that means students, staff and families — they play an important role in achieving the ultimate goal of graduating with a place to go in life. The high school diploma, Joens said, “is just an incentive along the way.”
Toward that end, he said, teachers need to recognize the positive work that on-track students are accomplishing. And rather than criticizing those who are behind, they need to interact to figure out how to best get back on the path.
“A lot of that preventive interaction is just asking why,” Joens said.
Equally important, he added, is giving credit to the faculty and staff who work daily with their students. When they feel empowered, Joens said, the entire process can work well.
“You have to provide feedback to the staff, to let them know how proud we are that our kids are being successful,” he said, adding that his school plans to increase its focus on career programs for students who aren’t headed to college.
Joens said he worried that the 2021 graduation rates could again slip, as the state reimposes the testing requirements it removed in the spring as the coronavirus pandemic started.
Students in the Class of 2020 who had not yet passed the state’s tenth-grade language arts test or Algebra I end-of-course exam, but met their grade-point and credit expectations, were allowed to graduate because those assessments were canceled due to the pandemic. The change helped about 7 percent of seniors statewide, according to the Florida Department of Education.
Joens noted that the test results are based on 180 days of in-person learning, something close to a third of students have not received during the pandemic for any number of reasons.
He said he hoped the state will reconsider how it uses the results this year, as the exams approach. State officials have said they will bring back testing this spring.
Featured image: The entrance to Hudson High on Jan. 15. Officials are trying to figure out how to make improvements at the Pasco County school, which saw its 2020 graduation rate decline significantly while other area schools reported increases. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]