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SWFL graduation rates: Collier and Lee counties make gains despite pandemic

Graduation rates in Southwest Florida showed historic highs for both Lee and Collier counties, according to the rates released Thursday by the state of Florida. File photo

Graduation rates in Southwest Florida showed historic highs for both Lee and Collier counties for the Class of 2020, according to the rates released Thursday by the state of Florida. 

The rates, listed on the Florida Department of Education website, show that statewide more students earned their diplomas in 2020 than the year before.

However, the state points to last spring's emergency order, which called for seniors to be exempt from statewide exams required to earn a diploma.

“Approximately 7.1% of the 2019-20 graduating class graduated with this exemption,” the DOE reported.

Lee County’s graduation rate hit an all-new high in 2020, rising 4.8 percentage points to 88.5%. It is the third year in a row the district has reached a new record.

The order helped more students graduate in Lee County, said Jeff Spiro, the chief academic officer for the district. Of the 6,123 graduates of the Class of 2020, he estimated that about 7.9% of the seniors benefited from the waiver.

"Yes, some of our graduates absolutely benefited from the state order," he explained. "However, other graduates benefited but may have successfully achieved their graduation requirements but did not get the opportunity because all assessments were canceled."

With graduation rates improving statewide with the exam waiver in place, the concern is whether there will be a dip when state exams are factored into the formula. 

"The benefit of students not having to meet those graduation requirements because of the pandemic did have a positive impact on our graduation rate. Will that then adversely impact next year's graduation rate? It may, I mean, we're not sure," Spiro said.

He believes the district will be able to analyze new data from this past year to see what additional interventions can be used to help more students graduate. Of concern is maintaining the graduation rate upticks seen in Lee's Black, Hispanic, English language learner and ESE students. 

In Collier, Superintendent Kamela Patton said 3.5%, or 121 seniors, received the state assessment waivers. There were 3,502 seniors in the Class of 2020 cohorts.

Patton said she anticipates some impact once state tests are factored back into the rates, but the district is continuing to make incremental improvement in student performance. 

Collier County's graduation rate

Collier County's rates climbed slightly by nearly a half percentage point, taking the rate to 92.2% overall.

It's a historical high, Patton said.

"They are just phenomenal students," Patton said.

For the previous two years, Collier's graduation rate was stagnant at 91.9%, still above the state's average. 

More:Southwest Florida graduation rates are in: Collier is static, Lee makes slight gains

Collier is one of more than 30 school districts that outperform the state graduation rate, which jumped by about 3 percentage points to 90% for the 2019-20 school year. 

More:Collier County’s 2020 Graduates of Distinction are ready for what’s next

Hispanic and Latino students, who make up Collier’s largest demographic group, graduated at about the same rate as the previous school year, up by less than a percentage point to 89.7%.

In Collier, African American students' graduation rate rose about 4 percentage points to 93%.

Coming off having one of the highest graduation rates for the 2018-19 school year, Gulf Coast High School’s graduation rate fell 2½ percentage points to 95.8%.

Gulf Coast had the largest class of graduating seniors of all Collier high schools with 619 students.

The district is working to figure out what happened at the school, Patton said.

Patton praised last’s year’s graduating class but admits she’s focusing on how the pandemic will impact the Class of 2021.

“We're always proud of what we do, but what's the next thing?” Patton said. “We don't just rest on our laurels.”

The upcoming graduating class is experiencing school in a way that's not normal due to the pandemic and for a much longer period than the Class of 2020, Patton said.

It's harder to maintain success under such circumstances, she said.

“My concern is will there be an incremental move next year when it's been a year and a half almost for those seniors,” Patton said.

Two Collier charter schools, which have significantly smaller numbers of seniors, graduated all of their students this year. Charter schools are publicly funded but privately run. 

Mason Classical Academy followed up last year’s 100% graduation rate with the same rate this year. All 24 students in the school’s senior class graduated. 

Marco Island Academy's, another charter school, graduation rate rose to 100% from last year’s 95.7%. All 47 students in the senior class graduated.

Here’s a look at the graduation rates for each traditional public high school in Collier County excluding charter and alternative schools and Collier's virtual school.

They are ranked from highest to lowest percentages, as reported by the state education website.

  • Everglades City School, 100% (Remained the same)
  • Lorenzo Walker Technical High School, 100% (Up from 99.3%)
  • Barron Collier High School, 96.2 % (Up from 94.2%)
  • Gulf Coast High School, 95.8% (Down from 98.3%)
  • Palmetto Ridge High School, 94.8% (Down from 95%)
  • Naples High School, 92.8% (Up from 92.7%)
  • Lely High School, 91.5% (Up from 90.1%)
  • Golden Gate High School, 91% (Up from 89.2%)
  • Immokalee High School, 88.1% (Up from 86.9%)

More:Lee County's Academic All-Stars strive for better tomorrow, brighter future

Lee County's graduation rates

Despite the unprecedented challenges faced by schools forced to pivot to distance learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the district saw 88.5% of its senior class graduate.

The latest graduation rate is a 4.8 percentage point uptick from the year before when 83.7% graduated.

The district’s rates have been on the rise since the Class of 2015, and in 2018, Lee County officials were pleased to have gotten to the 82.8% mark, which meant it had reached its highest graduation rate ever.

“This is an incredible achievement by the students of Lee County,” said Superintendent Greg Adkins in a news statement from the district. “We have seen our graduation rates steadily increase during the last few years, but these more recent numbers are beyond impressive. I am proud of our teachers and staff for their continued dedication to student success.”

Still, the county trails behind state averages, which show 90% of the 2020 class graduated.

Of the traditional high schools in Lee County, 13 graduated seniors in 2020. All carried a rate of 90% or better.

The district noted that the largest increase was an 11.2 percentage point jump to 96.6% at Dunbar High School in Fort Myers. 

During the past four years the district has formed task forces with people from each high school to delve into the data of all the subgroups, said Shellie Taylor, the coordinator for graduation in Lee. Also, the district has launched a countywide graduation tracker, which is a supplement to the databases used by high schools to track students through their four years.

“It is a way that, at any time, we can look at the data and progress monitor what we think and how many kids are actually on track,” Taylor said. “That's been a really key indicator because we can look at ninth grade, 10th grade, 11th grade, and then we can set up some strategic actions for what we need to do.”

The district has also focused on the "whole child" aspect of education, which was ramped up during the chaos of the springtime distance learning.

“During the pandemic we have a number of kids that maybe weren't engaged as much as we wanted them to,” Taylor said. She added that going out, checking on students and families and then mentoring them through the last months of school showed the “community that we really care about kids.”

“It really is this entire organization that works on getting students on grade level, making sure that we are preparing them for each and every next step, but again focusing on the whole child, not just the academic piece,” added academic chief Spiro, who referred to it as an initiative that starts in pre-K.

“Hats off to our teachers, they are amazing, and even in times of crisis, they stepped up to the plate and really showed what Lee County is all about, which is that we care about kids and we care about them as an individual.”

The 13 traditional schools had the following rates:

  • North Fort Myers High: 98.9% (increase of 2.4 percentage points)
  • Fort Myers High: 98.1% (increase of 0.3 percentage points)
  • Island Coast High: 97.8% (increase of 0.7 percentage points)
  • South Fort Myers High: 97.3% (increase of 4.7 percentage points)
  • Mariner High: 97.1% (increase of 0.1 percentage points)
  • Dunbar High: 96.6% (increase of 11.2 percentage points)
  • Lehigh Senior High: 96.2% (increase of 4.8 percentage points)
  • Cypress Lake High: 96.2% (increase of 4 percentage points)
  • Estero High: 95.7% (increase of 3.8 percentage points)
  • Cape Coral High: 95.6% (increase of 2.6 percentage points)
  • Ida S. Baker High: 94.41% (decrease of 2.3 percentage points)
  • Riverdale High: 94.2% (increase of 0.2 percentage points)
  • East Lee County High: 90.5% (increase of 3.9 percentage points)

The Lee Virtual School, the district’s online K-12 public school, carried a 95.9% graduation rate, which is an increase of 7.8 percentage points compared to the previous year.

More:Lee County's class of 2020 perseveres in a time of COVID-19, constant change

The news from the charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run, was varied.

At the top of the graduation rate rankings were Florida SouthWestern Collegiate High School with 98.9%, Oasis Charter High School with 98.6%, and Gateway Charter High School carrying a rate of 93%.

The rest of the charters with high school-level students reported graduation rates below 35%. They are:

  • Donna J. Beasley Technical Academy: 34.6%
  • Palm Acres Charter High: 33.7%
  • North Nicholas High: 29.3%
  • City of Palms Charter High: 25%
  • Coronado High: 25%
  • Island Park High: 20.9%.
  • Northern Palms Charter High: 11%

The variance among the charter schools isn’t a surprise to Teri Cannady, who oversees charter schools in Lee County and is the director of grants and program development.

Unlike the traditional charter high schools, the schools with the lower graduation rates serve as alternative schools.

“What they do is target the kids that aren't making it in a traditional high school, so these are already kids that are struggling. They've not been successful in a traditional high school,” she said.

Often the programs are geared toward credit-retrieval with computer-based learning, not traditional teacher-led classroom environments. Some take students up to age 21.

"When charter schools are not included, the district’s graduation rate rises to 96%," Rob Spicker, a spokesperson for the district, reported in a news statement.

Around Southwest Florida

Other Southwest Florida counties saw increases, too.

In Charlotte County, the graduation rate rose 4 percentage points to 90.4% in 2020. Hendry County’s rate climbed 6.7 percentage points, bringing its 2020 graduation rate to 90.4%.

However, the numbers in Glades County fell to 89.6%, a drop of 1.8 percentage points since 2019.

Rachel Fradette is an education reporter for the Naples Daily News. Follow her on Twitter: @Rachel_Fradette, email her at rfradette@gannett.com.

Pamela McCabe covers education for The News-Press. Contact her at pmccabe@gannett.com.

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