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Superintendent offers thoughts on Gadsden’s disappointing 2018-19 high school graduation rate

With the release of the  Florida Department of Education’s yearly high school graduation report earlier this month, many Gadsden County public school officials have no doubt had a rough couple of weeks – bombarded by bad press, fielding criticism from parents and school advocates, and finding themselves generally facing down the collective wagging finger of a concerned public.

Gadsden’s 2018-19 district-wide graduation rate was a somewhat disappointing 60.4 percent, the state report revealed, earning the county the dubious distinction of coming in dead-last among all 75 Florida counties and other local public school entities. Not as cut-and-dry as some may believe, the state’s “graduation rate” definition has been tweaked over the years to align with shifting politics and educational philosophies. Florida now aligns its calculation methodology with U.S. Department of Education standards, which are outlined in a document which reads like a long, jargon-filled medieval torture device.

Setting aside the technical complexities and variables, the “graduation rate” – as it relates to Gadsden’s 60.4 percent figure – is in a nutshell: the percentage of local high school students who graduated with a standard diploma within four years of enrolling in the ninth grade. 

While on the surface Gadsden County appears to be something akin to “loser” when it comes to the 2018-19 round of Florida graduation data, the district graduation rate alone reveals less than you might think about the health of district schools. For instance, the 60.4 percent graduation rate represents a rough average – albeit more nuanced than a simple mean or median – of the graduation numbers among Gadsden County’s three public high schools: Gadsden County High School, Crossroad Academy Charter School and Carter-Paramore Academy. The latter is the district’s alternative high school for students habitually in trouble, deemed “disruptive” to the general student population. Carter-Paramore’s dismal – but relatively nominal, among Florida’s standalone alternative high schools – 25 percent graduation rate proves to be a potent Achilles’ heel in Gadsden County’s overall graduation picture. 

Take Carter-Paramore out of the equation, and suddenly things start to look a bit rosier for the district. At 70 percent, Gadsden County High’s 2018-19 graduation rate is arguably respectable and comparable to that of other similarly sized schools in rural districts struggling with poverty, healthcare woes and the other social ills that often present stumbling blocks on the road to graduation. Particularly impressive is Crossroad’s perfect 100 percent graduation rate – a rare achievement typically found only in specialized schools for gifted students and the like in wealthier districts, state data indicates.

According to public education policy experts, some school districts opt to forego separate, standalone alternative schools to stave off precisely this phenomenon: Good school marks on state evaluations, but poor district marks – the latter often the most publicized and, hence, judged by parents and other interested parties. 

And this is just one example of the oft-ignored nuances inherent in the Department of Educations’ 2018-19 graduation report; and the graduation report is but a single example of standardized evaluations that – while perhaps necessary to gauge overall success – must be taken with a grain of salt, lest qualitatively skewed figures paint an overly simplistic picture of a given district, experts say. 

Along these lines, policies necessary to meet the unique needs of Gadsden County students are often at odds with policies that would bolster marks and numbers in state evaluations. It’s a delicate balancing act for district leadership that never ends, even with the changing of the guard in state offices.

Gadsden County Superintendent of Schools Roger Milton offers his thoughts on this year’s graduation report (2018-19 school term) and some of these other key issues in a Q&A:

How do you feel about Gadsden County’s 2018-19 graduation rate overall?

While we are not at the point where I want to be with Gadsden’s graduation rate, I recognize the fact that our school administrators, teachers and staff did the best they could to help our students succeed this past school year. Graduation rates in Florida lag behind in reporting years so the rate you see is the one that was earned during the 2018-2019 school year and it will move forward into grade calculations for the 2019-2020 school year.  

To what do you attribute the district’s three percent decline last year versus 2017-18? 

The high school was under new leadership in 2018-2019, coming back from a successful school year in 2017-2018 that allowed the district to move it out of Turnaround status. While the leader was new, with an all-new leadership team, they still made a respectable effort to retain a high graduation rate.  They only fell 3% from the prior year. Research documents repeatedly that a school under new leadership always requires time to adjust and prove to be successful and often dips in grading during the first year under new leadership. We are expecting even greater results as that leader and leadership team enter their second year of taking Gadsden County High School to new levels of success.  

The grade from Carter-Paramore contributed to the decline of overall district graduation rates.  Student behavior and discipline is a huge factor with all schools especially at Carter-Paramore, our alternative school. Withdrawal codes for students being assigned to CPA is also a major factor in the school grade, for which the District will continue to monitor the accuracy of data reporting. As the School Board has become stricter with zero tolerance, several students have moved from the alternative school to the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) system. DJJ students are not counted in the calculation of a district’s graduation rate.  While the district continues to support those students while they are in DJJ, the instruction and accountability of students in the DJJ system is outside the control of the school district. When they return to the school district they are often over-age and not eligible to graduate with their four-year cohort. Many ultimately graduate and are part of an extended graduation rate but still impact the regular federal four-year graduation rate for the district.

How much weight do you afford the district’s graduation rate versus, for example, standardized test scores or state evaluations?

While the graduation rate fell slightly from the year before at the high school, there were many pockets of excellence in the school grading components.  One component cannot be isolated out of context and be used as the only indicator of success for Gadsden County. Eleven separate components make up a school grade without the other factors such as a four-year cohort or things outside a school district’s control that impact calculations of separate rates for a school district that the state must report to the U.S. Department of Education.  

What, if anything, does graduation rate reveal about the district’s overall academic and/or operational health?

The 2019 state assessment demonstrated that Gadsden is on the right track academically as it moved from 494 total accountability points earned in 2017-18 to 567 in 2018-19.  Gadsden improved its English achievement by 3%, improved its Math achievement by 6%, improved its science achievement by 4%, and improved its social studies achievement by 11%.  Under my leadership, the district has eliminated ‘F’ Schools and has reduced the number of schools in Turnaround from five to three entering the 2019-2020 school year. In the past two years, we have had ‘F’ schools go to an ‘A’ and we have had schools who have just raw points in English and Math achievement that far exceed the state averages.  We are expecting more excellent trends this coming school year. The district is fast approaching a “B” accountability grade which we believe is in its reach for the 2019-2020 school year.  

Tell me a bit about Carter-Paramore Academy  and the challenges it faces vis a vis graduation rates and the like.

Broadly defined, alternative education programs are educational activities that fall outside the traditional K-12 curriculum. At the federal level, an alternative school is defined as a public elementary/secondary school that addresses the needs of students that typically cannot be met in a regular school, provides nontraditional education, serves as an adjunct to a regular school, or falls outside the categories of regular, special, or vocational education (now called career education) (Sable, Plotts, & Mitchell, 2010, p. C-1). CPA’s rate last year was 37%.  

Does having a separate school for troubled kids hurt the district when it comes to these types of calculations? 

Yes, but the alternative is to either let the disruptive/at-risk children remain in regular high school and disrupt the education of hundreds of other students or remove them to a setting that can possibly be designed to help them meet their individual needs in a non-traditional setting. The option of keeping them in alternative school settings keeps the district (that must provide a free and appropriate public education to all students between ages 5-18) from being released to a home school program or let them be dropouts who later become burdens on society when they have no option but turn to a life of non-productive activities.

Would our overall rate be better if Carter-Paramore students were dissolved into Gadsden County High School for data calculation purposes? If so, why keep Carter-Paramore separate? Is there an educational advantage? 

Many school districts have opted to close alternative school settings and re-enrolled the students into the regular school setting in order to avoid the difficulties having an alternative school setting creates for data calculation purposes.  However, the School Board has not indicated that it desires to remove the alternative school from Gadsden’s public schools because it wants to give every child a chance for success, even if the data calculations hurt its overall graduation rate. The advantage educationally is that if the district can help even one at-risk student to eventually graduate and go on to a successful life, it has accomplished its mission and vision of believing that all students can learn given the right environment, the right teachers, and the right setting.

How do you balance meeting the unique needs of Gadsden County students with the need to have high marks/good stats on state evaluations/data reports, if the two are at odds? 

Many elements in the state assessment system put a public school district at odds between needing to have high marks (or be financially and programmatically at-risk of losing the ability to serve students at all) and still meeting the needs of its public school students with an individualized educational program. Private schools are not required to provide the same level of instructional rigor to their students and are allowed to bypass the state assessment for other national assessments that do not meet the same rigor or requirements of Florida’s state assessment. They also do not have to accept or keep children in their private schools who are not academically successful or who are at-risk.  All students must be served by the public school system. This inequity does not create an equitable playing field, but it is the playing field that public schools must accept and try their best to compete in.  

View 2018-19 high school graduation reports from Florida Department of Education: 

Attendance by District 2018-19

Attendance by School 2018-19

Federal Grad Rate by District with Population Data 2018-19

Federal Grad Rate by District with Race&Ethnicity Data 2018-19

Federal Grad Rate by School with Population Data 2018-19

Federal Grad Rate by School with Race&Ethnicity Data 2018-19

Graduation Rate Guide 2018-19

Overview by District – Florida Graduation Rates 2018-19

Statewide Grad Rate Historical Summary