Despite a myriad of challenges stemming from the Covid pandemic, high schools across Pinellas County have set a new record for graduation rates and outpaced both the region and the state’s largest districts.
According to a report released Tuesday by the Florida Department of Education, the Pinellas County Schools (PCS) graduation rate rose to 92% for the 2020-2021 school year. That mark is up one-half a percentage point over last year’s record high.
The graduation rate in Pinellas has increased dramatically in the last eight years, rising 20% since 2013. PCS now possesses the highest graduation rate among Florida’s 10 largest public school districts, and tops all Tampa Bay area districts.
For comparison, neighboring Hillsborough County finished seventh out of the state’s 10 largest public school districts and fourth out of the region’s seven districts.
“I am thrilled for our students, staff and families,” said Pinellas County Schools Superintendent Michael Grego in a press release. “The 2020-2021 school year was like no other we have experienced.”
Grego added that the pandemic may have forced schools to close their doors, but it did not force students to close their minds or teachers to stop educating.
“When schools were closed in March 2020, our district didn’t stop teaching, and our students did not stop learning,” Grego said. “Thank you to everyone who doubled and tripled their efforts to ensure Pinellas County Schools students had a successful 2020-2021 year.”
Brett Patterson, principal of Pinellas Park High School, has watched his students’ graduation rate increase dramatically over the last few years. In the 2018-2019 school year, the school graduated 92.3% of its students. In 2019-2020 that number rose to 95.9%. Last year, 97.9% of seniors at Pinellas Park High received their diplomas.
Patterson credited the increase with strategies implemented before Covid swept over the area.
“It’s obviously something we’re very proud of,” said Patterson. “I would say it’s plans and processes we put in place before the pandemic that we just continued to improve and build on.”
Patterson said the pandemic gave the school an additional need and pushed it to reach every student and ensure they had the tools needed for success. He said it took the combined effort of students, teachers, family members and the surrounding community to improve despite such challenging times.
According to the PCS release, part of the district’s success stems from continually increasing resources for its Bridging the Gap plan. PCS attributes the strategy for setting a new record for graduation rates among Black students and narrowing the racial gap in graduation rates to its lowest point in district history.
The graduation rate amongst Black students rose to 86.3%, up nearly a percentage point from last year. While the overall graduation rate rose by 20% since 2013, the graduation rate among Black students increased by 29.9% in the same timeframe.
When PCS first instituted the Bridging the Gap plan, the discrepancy between Black and non-Black students was 18%. In 2020-2021, the gap decreased to 6.8%.
Patterson said Pinellas Park High School’s racial gap is down to 1.9% for core course failures and said his focus was on reducing the number of “D” and “F” grades. He said that is a goal the school can monitor daily, and supporting students throughout their coursework leads to positive improvements on the end-of-year assessments.
“Specifically with the Black graduation rate, it really comes down to making sure we have the right relationships and that the courses and what students are doing are relevant as well,” said Patterson. “We work on that significantly throughout the day and throughout the year.”
Pinellas County’s graduation rate is now nearly 2% higher than the state average, and its Exceptional Student Education program also leads Florida, with 83.8% of ESE students graduating.
Patterson said that schools around the county are dedicated and relentless in the pursuit of academic success, and also have the resources needed to achieve their goals. Goals that include a student’s success after graduation.
“Our end goal is no longer just graduation and walking across the stage,” said Patterson. “That’s kind of the beginning of our goal.
“We want to make sure that when students do walk across the stage that they’re prepared for college, career and life. Having that mindset makes all the difference in the world.”
Other highlights from the 2020-2021 PCS school year include:
- East Lake High School and Jacobson Technical High School graduated 100% of their students. Palm Harbor University and St. Petersburg and Seminole High Schools each posted a 99% graduation rate or better.
- Out of traditional schools, Largo High School made the greatest improvement in its graduation rate – an increase of 2.3%.
- Lealman Innovation Academy, an alternative school for troubled youth, showed the largest overall improvement. Its graduation rate jumped from 82.1% to 89.8%.
- All traditional high schools in the county graduated over 90% of students in 2020-2021.