BARTOW – Polk County’s high school graduation rate has jumped to 75.4 percent, an increase of 3.6 percentage points from the 2015-16 school year but still below the state average.
Polk’s jump still bested Florida’s increase of 1.6 percentage points, which brought the statewide graduation rate to 82.3 percent, a 14-year high according to the Florida Department of Education.
Polk’s graduation rate of 75.4 percent is the highest it has been in the past 10 years, district officials said, though exact numbers weren’t immediately available late Wednesday afternoon. The new numbers have exceeded the School District’s goal of attaining a rate of 74 percent.
Polk County School Board members received the new numbers Wednesday afternoon during a daylong strategic-planning session at the Jim Miles Professional Development Center near Highland City. The day was given to a broad overview of districtwide goals that are intended to improve the School District’s letter grade to a B from last year’s grade of C.
Increasing graduation rates is a primary goal of the district, so the increase was welcome news.
“We are beyond proud of the results we have achieved for our students and our community,” School Superintendent Jacqueline M. Byrd said in a prepared statement. “We have worked tirelessly to remove barriers, to provide targeted support to our students, to work together as a united school district in pursuit of increasing our graduation rate.”
“We’re closing the gap,” said School Board member Hazel Sellers.
District officials singled out Tenoroc High School for its graduation rate of 70.7 percent, an increase of 13 percentage points; and Mulberry High School, which improved by 11 percentage points to a graduation rate of 87.3 percent.
Twelve schools in Polk exceeded Florida’s average graduation rate, the district said in a news release.
Statewide, graduation rates for black and Hispanic students saw impressive increases in the past five years.
The rate for black students rose from 64.6 percent in 2012-13 to 74.8 percent in 2016-17, an increase of 10.2 percentage points. For Hispanics, the rate increased from 74.9 percent to 81.3 percent, a jump of 6.4 percentage points.
“I am thrilled to celebrate our state’s students and educators on this monumental accomplishment,” Florida Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart said in a prepared statement. “Excelling in high school opens doors to opportunities.”
As part of their goals, Polk school administrators are working to improve graduation rates for disabled students. The current rate is 46.4 percent, compared with 66 percent statewide.
To improve graduation rates for all students, the Polk School District has developed several strategies, including taking advantage of available federal Title 1 funds to be used for special activities, such as Saturday boot camps to help struggling students improve grades.
The district also is working to improve teacher retention with several strategies, including developing an exit survey to learn why teachers are leaving and creating a mentor program.
Board members also used Wednesday’s planning session to brainstorm ways to achieve district goals and become more effective in their roles.
Board member Billy Townsend stressed the need for more internal examination and self-criticism during the board’s public meetings. Townsend said he's ''very comfortable” in expressing his thoughts and being confrontational.
Townsend’s sometimes pugnacious demeanor has rankled some of his fellow board members.
At Wednesday’s planning session, board member Kay Fields said she’s noticed a decline in the respect that other members of the board show to one another, though she did not mention names.
“We don’t have a team in my opinion,” she said. “I hope and pray 2018 is much better than 2017.”
Picking up on Fields’ criticism, Townsend said: “Our loyalties are to the people who elected us; there’s nothing wrong with disagreeing. (Mostly) we’re on the same page. I like all of you, I really do. But my loyalty is to the people. We don’t have to be a team.”
Eric Pera can be reached at email@example.com or 863-802-7528.