Worrisome Numbers for Black Students Behind Flagler School District’s “Touting” of Graduation Rates
FlaglerLive | January 14, 2016
The Florida Department of Education released its latest batch of state graduation rate figures last week. If you just look at the press releases and the overall big number coming out of Flagler County–the press release was headlined “Flagler Schools Superintendent Touts Graduation Rate Change”–you might think everything is fine.
A closer look at the at the numbers show cause for alarm, however, and numbers that yield more questions that laurels.
Flagler’s two high schools produced graduates at a rate of 77.5 percent in 2014-15, which is down 0.3 percent from last year, but up 7.5 percent from five years ago. The state graduation rate is 77.8 percent, so Flagler is squarely average.
Matanzas High School performs above the state average, at 81.4 percent, while FPC is at 76.6 percent.
But look a little closer: Matanzas’ rate is down two points from 2013-14. FPC’s grad rate has been flat (within one percentage point either way) for the past three years.
More disappointingly, the graduation rate for black students has taken a nosedive. Overall in Flagler 63.3 percent of African-American students are graduating, down 4.6 percentage points from three years ago. But at FPC, that number more than doubles. In 2012-13 71 percent of African-American students graduated. Two years later it was down to 61 percent.
The overall graduation rate number barely makes it to the state average level. For a school district that openly “strives to be the nation’s premier learning organization,” (the motto is on the district’s official letterhead and was heard loudly at Tuesday’sTeacher of the Year celebration), the middling numbers in themselves question whether education leaders should have much to “tout.” The numbers also raise serious questions about the cause of the steep drop for graduating black students.
Interviews this week with school board President Colleen Conklin and Superintendent Jacob Oliva produced varying explanations for the numbers, and varying levels of concern.
“If you’re going to be a premier learning organization, you can’t have average graduation rates,” Conklin said. “The numbers about African-American graduation rates are definitely alarming. A 10 percent drop is unacceptable, and we have to change that. And we will.”
“We eat, breathe and sleep trying to get our students to graduate, and we’re always looking for ways to improve,” Oliva said. “But you can’t look at data like this year’s drop in isolation. When you look at the trend lines, they have fluctuated. We have to make sure we have safety nets for our students, and when we receive data that doesn’t meet our expectations, we certainly need to make sure there are additional supports in place.”
To be clear: the dropout rate at Flagler County’s high schools is only 1 percent. Yet the graduation rate is 77 percent. You might reasonably ask: what is going on with the 22 percent who aren’t graduating, but aren’t dropping out? Lots of possibilities explain what happened to those 22 percent. For one, a student who takes five years to graduate isn’t counted in graduation rate statistics because the state formula calls only for those students whose “cohort” came in to high school four years earlier and graduate in four years to count as graduates.
A student who drops out and then earns a G.E.D., or a graduation equivalency diploma, is also not counted, nor is a student who begins high school in Flagler, moves to another district, and graduates there counted among Flagler’s numbers. There are also students who are on track to graduate but don’t pass some of the high-stakes tests required to get a diploma. Still, the search for answers on why Flagler’s rate is just at the state average leads in a number of directions.
Average numbers match up poorly with a district describing itself as the nation’s “premier” learning organization.
Conklin said one area that the school system needs to beef up to improve graduation rates is the number of vocational classes and programs offered. Flagler schools do have that option with Florida Technical Institute (FTI), the district’s adult education arm, where a number of vocational classes–from truck driving to cosmetology–and training offered.
“But I think we should be doing more,” Conklin said. “It’s not a matter of money, it’s a matter of alignment, and awareness by the teachers, that some of the skills they’re teaching can be used, and fit really nicely, with some industry certification tests.
“That’s really the ticket to increasing graduation rates,” Conklin added. “If you increase the opportunity for industry certification, and give students the chance to train for jobs they’re actually going to have after they graduate, you’re going to see rates rise.”
Oliva said the county’s Flagship Program initiative is an excellent way for students to see real-world applications of skills they’re learning, and said that “with skill sets constantly evolving and changing, our students need to be problem-solvers, and develop job skills.”
He also stressed the need to look statewide, regionally and nationally to identify other programs Flagler schools can incorporate that would help with vocational training.
Another possible explanation for the declining African-American graduate rate cited by Conklin and Oliva was the closing two years ago of Pathways Academy, an alternative school in Bunnell that had some 50 students when it closed. The school, closed for lack of money, has not been replaced, though this year a new facility adjacent to FPC High School has a handful of students, and Pathways had its own issues: the district had been moving away from expelling students from their home schools and adopting disciplinary methods geared at keeping more students in school.
“I think that may be part of it, but we’re also seeing an increase in African-American students in AP and advanced classes; those numbers are growing,” Conklin said, referring to the Advanced Placement program, which with the International Baccalaureate at FPC offers the most rigorous course of study for high school students.
Pastor Sims Jones, the second vice-president of the Flagler County NAACP, is “frustrated” and “very concerned” with the new numbers.
“I think part of the reason for the African-American rate drop is that I don’t think the school system is looking fairly at the social and economic context of people of color,” Jones said. “For example, the county did a good thing with the laptop program, but a lot of these families don’t have the money to have Internet service at home, so now these kids are at a disadvantage because most kids do their homework at home. And now you’re not able to do that.”
Jones said he hears from parents in the district that African-American students are not getting treated the same as other students when it comes to discipline issues, though he admits there are no local statistics to prove that. (National data pointing to similar concerns, however, abounds, while the Flagler district’s efforts to be more racially progressive are of relatively recent vintage.)
“What happens is that if an African-American student and a white student get in trouble, and only the African-American kid gets suspended, other kids see that and get discouraged,” Jones said. “Parents also come to me and tell me that their kids are always playing catch-up.”
Jones also criticized the Flagship Program, saying that “children of color aren’t in those programs very much,” though hard data on that is lacking as well.
“I think we have to look at the whole student, not just the academic part of the student,” Jones said. “I’m afraid the school district is just looking for a certain segment, the segment that looks good on reports and in data. “They’re not focusing on the students that don’t have the same drive.”
One recent development that may or may not have a large impact on graduation rates, that relates to discipline as well, is the June settlement the Flagler school board reached in a lawsuit that charged the district with unfair disciplinary practices toward black students, and a system of excessive suspensions or expulsions.
The Southern Poverty Law Center had filed the complain in 2012 on behalf of three students and “all others similarly situated.”
One component of the settlement was the formation of a task force called the Coalition for Student Success. That committee will be turned into something similar to a civilian review board that operates as a watchdog of some police agencies. Its 11 members, made up of parents, students, community members (at least one of whom represents the local chapter of the NAACP), the sheriff’s office, a mental health counselor and just one representative from the school district’s administrative staff, will meet at least quarterly and publicly to review disciplinary data and make recommendations to the superintendent regarding disciplinary policies. The district has yet to publicly notice such meetings (as it does its school board meetings and workshops).
Oliva believes the graduation rate issue and the discipline issue “are connected, and that if we can have open, honest dialogue that’s a win-win for everybody. I think things may improve, and if students are able to be successful and have support networks behind them, we can move forward.”
Conklin added that many of the improvement ideas that arose from the lawsuit settlement were already in place previously but are now being expanded to help minority students, and that programs continue to be implemented and expanded.
“I think having the task force will help create and shine a light on all parties involved, and that can only be a good thing,” she said. “There will be new questions we’re asking ourselves.”
“There’s still a long way to go,” the NAACP’s Jones said.