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Flagler District’s Graduation Rate Soars to 88%, Vindicating Big Push and Tager’s “Bunker”

| January 8, 2019

One of the things that drew Flagler County School Board members to Jim Tager almost two years ago was his focus on raising graduation rates. It's working. (© FlaglerLive)

One of the things that drew Flagler County School Board members to Jim Tager almost two years ago was his focus on raising graduation rates. It’s working. (© FlaglerLive)

In Flagler County schools, the days leading up to the Christmas break were fraught with high-profile incidents involving a handful of students who did dumb things, ending up arrested, facing charges, or expelled. But the incidents overshadowed a much brighter story affecting many, many more students and faculty members who did great things: the district’s graduation rate jumped from 81.1 percent to 88 percent, just shy of two points above the state average and the highest rate in recent memory.

There were gains across all categories, but especially for blacks, whose graduation rate jumped from 69.4 percent to 83 percent, and for students considered at-risk: their rate soared from 59.7 percent to 72.6 percent. The rate for Hispanic students rose two points to 85.8 percent, the rate for white students rose from 83.8 to 89.5 percent, and for Asians from 95 to 96.7 percent. The rate for students of two or more races also rose sharply from 75 to 87 percent.

The rate among students with disabilities rose from 55.6 percent to 75.7 percent. (The district’s rate for non-disabled students is 89.4 percent.

As always, wealth, like race, matters: students from poorer homes, categorized as “economically disadvantaged” in the language of the Department of Education, had a graduation rate almost 10 points lower than students from wealthier homes (whose rate is 93.3 percent).

At the school level, Flagler Palm Coast High School saw its graduation rate rise from 82.3 to 87.7 percent. Matanzas High School saw its rate rise from 86 to an all-time high of 92.8 percent.

The school district has made improvements to its graduation rate a priority, dubbing the effort Graduation 100, and hiring Superintendent Jim Tager nearly two years ago with that in mind: Tager was bringing a strong portfolio in graduation-rate improvements, and would speak of his strategies in numerous public appearances over the past year and a half. He also made predictions, saying the district’s graduation rate would improve by at least five points.

He beat his own prediction.

“We were real happy with the at-risk students, African-American students went up I think 13 percent, and exceptional student education students went up 20 percent,” Tager said. “We worked hard throughout the year and it was definitely a team approach.”

The improvements should help the district in its quest to become an A-rated district again.

Is it likely to happen when grades are announced later this year? “Likelier, yes. I wouldn’t predict it because we’ve been a B seven years in a row,” Tager said. “It’s not all that easy.”

But the district’s improvements are getting noticed at the state Department of Education.

“One of the first people who reached out to be was Jake,” meaning Jacob Oliva, the former superintendent, now the third-highest official at the state Department of Education. “He said it was very impressive work. When I took the job one of the things he and I spoke about was graduation rate, acceleration, so those things could help us to get there,” to an A rating.

During his job interview and again during public appearances he would describe what is clearly one of his favorite graduation-improvement strategies: The Bunker. It’s a concentrated remediation program that focuses on students at risk of dropping out while also separating them from hourly distractions such as cell phones.

“We took kids that nobody thought could make it, we believed in them, put them in a smaller environment, and we had teachers of all subject areas in there working with them,” Tager said. “When I went in and spoke with those kids, I said why are you doing well now? They said, number one, smaller environment, and number two, I know people care.”

Tager tells the story of one particular student at Matanzas High who was almost written off.
“Not only did he make it,” Tager said, “he finished up, came back to visit the school in September, he’s now qualifying to go to school to be a police officer, and he brought in his cousin and said–can you all help him too.”

School Board member Andy Dance credits Tager for the significant improvement. “Mr. Tager is awfully modest about his role,” Dance said. “Obviously we couldn’t do it without staff and the students and everybody who supported the work that raised the rate. But it starts with leadership, and it’s really his leadership and guiding that was impressive. When he first was hired, it was one of his top goals to see that improve.”

While the district has its sights on a 100-percent graduation rate–nearly impossible even in the very best of schools–it’s setting a more realistic goal right now: “The goal is to get into the 90s next year, 90 percent or higher,” Tager said.

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7 Responses for “Flagler District’s Graduation Rate Soars to 88%, Vindicating Big Push and Tager’s “Bunker””

  1. tulip says:

    I think Flagler county found a keepsake prize.. Keep up the excellent work Mr, Tager

  2. Palm Coast Dad says:

    I am impressed with the drive Mr. Tager has brought to ensure success for the students of Flagler County. Unfortunately, the guidance department in MHS has not opted to embrace the same mentality. My daughter (not an attendance issue or “troubled child”) was told by her guidance counselor that she felt it was not mathematically possible for her to graduate and hinted to her to give up. Her teachers have been very engaged and dedicated to help her over the hurdle. Coach White has been the primary driving force to ensure her that if she works hard she will succeed. The MAJOR hurdle has been her guidance councilor who has the check the box move on to the next student attitude. My wife and I have met with guidance and each meeting leaves us feeling frustrated and deflated as well. I am optimistic Mr Tager will be the person standing at the finish line for high school giving “high 5’s” with the other committed educators.

  3. MRC says:

    88%? Really??!! NOT acceptable. Anything less than the mid 90’s is failing our students and failing society. I cannot accept the excuses put forth for failing to expect excellence in our schools. Florida schools are seriously missing the mark. No surprise when I observe students exiting our schools way before 3 p.m. each day. When I first observed this I thought perhaps it was an early release day, only to find out that every day is an “early release” day. How can we provide a quality education when students are not even in the building long enough to receive an adequate education in addition to quality after school intensive tutoring and mentoring programs? While steps are being taken to encourage students to stay in school, this district is not even close to requiring and I mean REQUIRING staff, students, AND parents to become fully accountable for each child’s success or failure in school. As harsh as that sounds, school districts that have taken that stance now have gold star status and truly put this district to shame. Step up to the plate, raise standards, and watch what happens. This should be a wake-up call!

  4. Steve says:

    Nice job. Am I expecting too much? The numbers should be here or higher. I mean its High School right. Keep pressing

  5. Diane says:

    Don’t be patting yourself on the back . Anything less than 100% graduation rate is a failure…….

  6. Palm Coast Mom says:

    Awesome job FPC!! Thank you to Mrs. Brocksmith the senior guidance counselor last year. She helped my daughter and so many meet their goal of graduation!! Make sure you give her props. I received so many phone calls in the years my daughter had her after 5pm just to ensure she communicated with me about her progress. Thank you!

  7. Harmabe says:

    You have to wonder with these numbers if “graduation” means what we think it means. We’ve seen in many districts when the #1 priority is on the numbers, the numbers improve. Are the kids that graduated (that otherwise wouldn’t have 2 years ago) prepared to be functional adults? Or was there an internal push at the school to make kids do take home packets that bridged a years worth of work into a few nights for “catch up” which qualified them to graduate.

    I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the black kids who graduated above the normal 69.4% are no less educated or prepared for life and society than they would have been without being passed on through graduation. The Southern Poverty Law Center settled with Flagler Schools their lawsuit that charged Flagler with suspending too many black kids. Of course Flagler has a very real financial reason to pass these kids on. Everybody rejoices and the heads of the district get accolades because of the inflated numbers.

    What they’re doing here is essentially passing the buck of these kids to the next level. The buck will stop when some of these kids try to attend college and get crushed because they don’t have the right academic skills. The buck will stop when these kids try to get a job, but their behavioral problems were never addressed (because the school didn’t want to get sued) and they get fired.

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