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January 16, 2018
A little plaque sits on the desk of Pracia Mitchell, a reminder to herself and motivation for her students: “The tassel is worth the hassle.”
For the guidance counselor at Tenoroc High, these words ring true when excited seniors rush into her office after passing challenging tests following months of studying. Graduation is now within reach.
“They come in with all this excitement, jumping,” Mitchell said. “A few of them have broken down. I’ve broken down with them. We’ve cried together. We’ve cheered together. But just to know that they’ve finally reached what they thought they couldn’t reach means a lot.”
Even more Polk County students are earning their diplomas, and schools like Tenoroc High and Mulberry High saw dramatic increases in their 2016-2017 graduation rates compared to the prior year, according to the latest data from the Florida Department of Education.
Overall, the Polk County School District’s graduation rate improved to 75.4 percent, an increase of 3.6 percentage points compared to the year before. This is the district’s highest graduation rate in a decade. (See your school's graduation rate here.)
The district’s 14 traditional public high schools saw a graduation rate of approximately 82 percent – very close to Florida’s statewide graduation rate of 82.3 percent.
Tenoroc High’s graduation rate soared to 70.7 percent, an increase of 13 percentage points.
Jason Looney, principal at Tenoroc High, credited his entire staff with making the school a special place for learning.
Teachers and administrators prepare students for college and careers while helping them feel confident that they can be successful after high school, he said. Food service employees, custodians and office staff members make the campus feel warm and welcome.
“Their actions, their work, their commitment is why we were able to increase the graduation rate,” Looney said.
Skyler Suggs, a senior at Tenoroc High, agreed the school has a supportive atmosphere where teachers make students feel like success is possible.
“A lot of the teachers give extra credit if you are behind,” she said. “They are very willing to work with you.”
Mulberry High’s graduation rate rose to 87.3 percent, an increase of 11 percentage points.
Michael Young, principal at Mulberry High, said his teachers embrace new ideas and ways of educating students. With their hearts in the right place, they then motivate students to try their best, he said.
“Many times students are underdogs,” Young said. “They are in survival mode day-to-day. They have to have faith to see beyond today.”
Isaiah Dorado, who attends Mulberry High, said his senior year has been “very stressful,” but he considers his school to be like a “family” with caring teachers who help him along the way.
“They truly do care for us, and they try their best to give us all the tools we need,” he said.
To improve their graduation rates, Tenoroc High and Mulberry High found success using similar strategies of digging deep into student performance data, regularly reviewing the results with students and targeting those identified as being at risk of not graduating.
Each school employs a “success coach” who works one-on-one with such students. The coach helps determine what barriers are keeping these students from fulfilling graduation requirements – whether it’s a need for passing test scores, recovering classes or balancing life issues.
The coach devises a plan with those students, communicates with them and monitors them the entire school year.
“These students aren’t lost in the machine,” Young said. “They need that additional support – whatever it might be – to help them check the next box … and to encourage them that graduation isn’t the end goal. Your life is the end goal. Your dream is the end goal.”
Melinda Dixon, who works as the success coach at Tenoroc High, said she helps at-risk students embrace a positive mindset.
“I have kids that are no longer on my radar for being at risk because they now have all the things they need in place to graduate, and they still come to me just to brag about their A’s and B’s,” Dixon said. “Those hugs and those brags are full of joy.”
In addition to success coaches, Tenoroc and Mulberry offered tutoring to students struggling to pass the Florida Standards Assessments. In particular, some students were having trouble passing the challenging English Language Arts portion – a reading requirement for graduation.
As an alternative to passing the reading portion of the FSA, students can also meet the requirement by receiving a passing score on the ACT or SAT.
Tenoroc’s location along a secluded stretch of Saddle Creek Road also presented an obstacle. Some students live 30 minutes away or more, so activity buses were needed to take them home after tutoring.
At Tenoroc, some students didn’t want to register for the ACT because filling out the paperwork could be confusing, and they didn’t want to do it alone. The school’s intensive reading teacher scheduled days to register them. Guidance counselors also have computers in their offices to help students through the registration process.
“It’s time consuming, so once they saw that they had someone to actually help them we had a lot more students taking the test,” said Mitchell.
The focus on at-risk students, extra tutoring and one-on-one attention has more students learning that the tassel is worth the hassle. Faculty members at both schools say students are not waiting to be identified as at-risk, and are approaching staff for help.
“I think that success is flourishing around here,” Dixon said. “It can be contagious. I think that students seeing other kids passing the ACT or being on track to graduate, (and) their friends not dropping out — it’s that positive peer pressure … Now they are seeing that taste of what it’s like to be successful, and I think that it’s paying off.”