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Worrisome Numbers for Black Students Behind Flagler School District’s “Touting” of Graduation Rates

| January 14, 2016

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Superintendent Jacob Oliva and School Board Chairman Colleen Conklin interpret the latest graduation numbers differently. (© FlaglerLive)

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.

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20 Responses for “Worrisome Numbers for Black Students Behind Flagler School District’s “Touting” of Graduation Rates”

  1. rst says:

    One word solution: jobs…

  2. Scoobydoo says:

    UH OH!!! Here comes the NAACP… AGAIN… Lets blame everyone and everything else… White kids drop out too

  3. Rich Mikola says:

    Parents must take an active role in their child’s education. Blaming teachers or the school system is just a cover up of your own shortcomings. If your child doesn’t graduate it’s your fault. Too many video games and cellphones to provide distraction. If you fail in high school, you will probably fail in life.

  4. Derrick R says:

    You can compare stats all you want numbers don’t lie. But this one issue is systemic to the lack of family structure and the lack of values taught by Role Models in the the home. Today even a non-traditional family is far better than no family as we’ve allowed the social service entitlements to replace fathers & husbands while excusing irresponsible child bearing. Today thanks to the misdirection of the media who’ve traded morals & right for profits. Pop Stars & Sport Players have replaced the home grown honest hero. The hard woking moms & dads who make many sacrifices daily to ensure their own children can cope and function on thier own without decades of public handouts. Until the root causes are corrected things will not change.

  5. Mothers Worry says:

    How about we stop playing around with this issue. Education doesn’t start at graduation, It starts at the elementary level. If the parents can’t or won’t instill any discipline, manners or any type of social behavior in their children when they enter the system then what do folks expect?? To expect a teacher to attempt to teach a student that only shows up three day’s a week and then is disruptive the two days said student does show up is crazy. I’d like to know how many parents show up at school to speak to their child’s teacher.
    Folks have to stop treating school as a taxpayer funded day care.

  6. r&r says:

    Rich and Derrick, I agree..

  7. The Geode says:

    Being black myself, I have to agree with “Derrick R”. I lived this. I see this daily. I rail against this. I am called “sell-out”, “lame” and “coon” for doing so. OH WELL…

  8. Fredrick says:

    If you want to see what the problem is, just go take a walk down the halls of FPC……self explanatory.

  9. layla says:

    We’re failing these kids, on all sides. But I agree that it has to start at home. In the absence of parents, has the district ever tried mentoring? Are there any statistics available on this to show if that works? In a community of retirees, that would be a great resource to tap into. They’ve got all the time in the world and what better to spend it on?

  10. Jack Howell, PhD says:

    I am so tired about hearing this crap! Of course the simple thing to do is to complain and place blame on the teachers and the school system. I hear all to often teachers are failing to provide solid quality of instruction. Pastor Sims Jones, a friend, points out that while the school system is providing laptops many students of color do not have internet service at home. I can see this as a point. However, how many of these students have cellphones and brand name athletic shoes? So I can’t by that argument.

    What is the real cause of poor student performance in school? It happens to be a lack of PARENTING SKILLS! Teachers and parents have to work as a team. Unfortunately, by the time students enter high school the parent support and interest (other than football) is lacking! The other part of this reality is that we have children raising children so priorities of education wane.

    Parents need to work from day 1 of schooling with their kids to impress the proper study habits, structure and help. The big thing that I see is the fact that half of our society is illiterate. They don’t comprehend what they read. When a child is learning to read in the elementary school, it is critical. If they can’t comprehend what they are reading, all is lost. That’s right. They can’t do a math problem because they don’t understand what is being asked of them. Same goes for the other subjects as well. Like building a house. If your foundation is weak, the house will fall.

    I taught high school for 13 years in inner city schools so I know about what I am talking. I spoke with civic and spiritual leaders, within the black community, and suggested that after school programs be put in place with tutors. These programs would be located in local church halls and business establishments with computer/internet access for these students. The result was disheartening. Everybody had an excuse not to get involved. So the students suffer with poor to failing grades and high school graduation.

    You all have heard that it takes a village to raise a child. Well, instead of pointing fingers I think it is time that our village puts up or shuts up. Let’s get our crap together and make a plan. While it might be too late to save all of them, we can save the majority.

  11. Mothers Worry says:

    Layla says “we are failing these kids on all sides” How are “we” failing these kids??? We (taxpayer) provide schools, teachers, material for children to learn. We provide all sorts of food programs so they can learn with a full stomach. We provide a bus to take them to school. Heck, we even provide housing for a lot of them.

    Please don’t tell me we are failing these kids!!!

  12. ryan says:

    I’m late to this thread but wow…this can’t be an institutional problem? As a parent that had been failed by this system, race isn’t an issue in this because it’s irrelevant? Mr. Howell, congratz on your PhD. But since you have the PhD you should be aware of human behavior. The psychology and the social behavior of people impoverished a beat down for generations by a social system that makes on set esteemed and one vilified. Mybe you should go back to some text books. I remember coming to Bunnell for the first time being from up north with its covert racism and wanting to help the kids progress past the suspensions and expulsion rates this county school system covertly was perpetrating on them on a grassroots level. This was before these rates were realized by the so-called professionals. ( The Southern Pov. Law report didn’t come out yet) I came to realize my mindset was an impediment because of my perception of the Blacks in Bunnell. Wanting to help but not understanding the Blacks in Bunnell was an issue. Just think about it and stop the judgement. I’m sometimes called an Uncle Tom or a sell out but I understand how lashing out and mistrust comes with the territory.

  13. Jack Howell, PhD says:


    Thank you for your input. That said, I am well aware of psychology and social behavior. As a matter of fact, I am a member of the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. I stand by my remarks in my post and I don’t need a textbook to review my thoughts.

    I spent 25 years in the military including a time in the late 60’s and early 70’s racial unrest presented several leadership issues. We got through it. I also spent a significant amount of time in law enforcement so I worked with minorities of all kinds. I think what I’m hearing is a pity party in the makes. Sorry, I stand on my remarks. There is a way out of poverty and you can break the mold if you truly want to. It is called hard work and education.

  14. ryan says:

    I commend your educational achievements as well as your time in Law Enforcement and the military. I won’t question your outstanding achievement in the realm of psychological and social behavior as well as your expertise in Traumatic Stress. Those mid twentieth century text books are good reading. I will state however that with all the time you’ve spent sweating to achieve what you are quick to point out to us, your lack of sensitivity is outstanding. I too have spent sometime in the 70’s and 80’s and with racial unrest. Poverty is a MF! The crack epidemic wiped out lots of hopes. And cops jailed lots of blacks disproportionate to whites. Many of false arrests and killings of unarmed black men was a constant. I wasn’t in the south then but I could imagine. Flagler and Flagler schools in the late 70’s must have been hell . History shows what went on in the late seventies schools let alone crossing the train tracks. Can we say systemic? Just the same…Hard work to some is working for minimum wage in meaningless dead end jobs taking care of a family and keeping a roof over your head plus coping with the racism in this county. You may say the choice of a family was one of one’s own choosing. You may also say furthering ones educational standing is a choice. You’ve already said in so many words there is no systemic problems facing blacks that they can’t get out from under by themselves. The facts are there for anyone to see if one wants the knowledge. Knowledge is dim if it is limited in scope and denial makes deniers stupid. Facts are that teachers have the responsibility of teaching in this fun loving society. Admins find ways to reach, teach, and manage the system. It seems like the clog in the wheel are the admins tying hands of teachers. There’s no groundbreakers so blame the parents. I’m thankful that we have some that genuinely care. I’ve heard these buzz words you use before from Clarence Thomas and Ben Carson and many other Republicans. Hard work is what most blacks do and for many, education has been a way out. For most just a slight help to the edge of middle classdom. But it does start with the system that supposedly teach. Not pass the buck. Bootstrappin is just a slogan. It’s a shame the term “Pity party” is used especially coming from someone that’s so flamboyant with accomplishments.

  15. Jack Howell, PhD says:

    Guess you are right. I am insensitive. I am so insensitive that’s why I established Teens-In-Flight. Sorry Ryan, nobody gave me anything growing up. I came from the poor side of town. The wrong side of the tracks as one would say. I worked hard to get out of that lifestyle. I am indeed insensitive to people that don’t want to work, get educated and get out of poverty. So don’t lecture to me. I see paths that can lead out or I see paths that continue to keep people chained to welfare, drugs and crime. It is up to the individual. Yeah, pity party is the right term when one does not want to seek a better life so they can stay in the hell that surrounds them. By the way, boot strapping can be more than a slogan!

  16. ryan says:

    I’m glad you agree that you are insensitive. There are so many nice guys past and present that do good things. But what does it mean when apathy is not in the equation. You’ve said enough and so have I.

  17. Mansa says:

    Quick note: anyone that has to start with “being black myself” most likely isn’t black. Just saying, Geode.

    I’ll start by saying that several of you have some valid points in regards to solutions for this issue, parents getting more involved, more of positive role models, and a little self motivation. However, I think Ryan may be the one with the most competence to understand the issues that are really at hand.

    Choosing to place the responsibility on the individual or their parents isn’t an effective solution to this issue. Being that majority of the Black students who have attended FPC historically, have come from Bunnell. You’re dealing with a city that has recently has been introduced to DMT (Disproportionate Minority Contact) which is a theory that states law enforcement being in close vicinity of a neighborhood, that is perceived as crime ridden, is more likely to have an increase in crime rates. Not because the stigma is true, but because law enforcement surveys them more, are more likely to devise sting operations, or create more scenarios to make an arrest in that particular area.

    In Bunnell you are dealing with generational issues. People who have been economically, socially, and mentally deprived for years. To suggest that it’s simply a matter of “wanting to do more for yourself” is the most useless ‘solution’ to the issue at hand. Does the individual have the responsibility to create a legitimate source of income for his/her self, yes, but if their environment doesn’t present that opportunity or they don’t come from a linage where there’s an abundance of knowledge and resources to pull from…it’s rather difficult to say the least.

    If the tax payers were truly “doing their job” some of those dollars that are allocated for that area would be spent… in that area. There have been numerous restoration projects being started in Flagler county for several years now and I’m sure they all don’t come from the private sector. A portion of those “tax payer” dollars need to be spent in the area where people need them the most. Palm Coast has become a nice, picture perfect city while Bunnell has seen little to no improvements in the past decade. No sustainable jobs, no community restoration, and no training programs… just a new police station, updates to the athletic facility (which produces the athletes you cheer for), a Family Dollar (which lowers property value), and that’s about it.

    No real investments into the community to give them a sense of hope and desire to value their education… so based on the activities that go on in any Socially Disorganized Neighborhood, they choose an alternative mean of income. Quick Soc lesson for you guys :)

    That boot strapping bologna is only relevant when you have the opportunities to use them. Sure, give them a Macbook to take home to do their work when they still have to deal with the realities of growing up in an impoverished neighborhood. Will it help a child or two? Yes, but for the whole…No.The area has potential, no one is investing in them or providing the opportunity for training. Once you give them a marketable skill or equip them with the vision to do better, you will see a change.

    The poop has hit the fan. This is what happens when reality hits home for most so they stop thinking about sports and take another route. #WeAreMoreThanJUSTAthletes

  18. Outsider says:

    My daughter has been attending Buddy Taylor Middle School. She no longer goes there as of today. There are fights virtually every day, with almost all of them involving black kids. If you don’t believe me, go find the Instagram page for BTMS fights and see for yourself. There are groups of black kids that block the hallways between classes and threaten to kick other kids’ asses if they even brush up against them. One boy ran into my daughter and he threatened her, calling her a “bitch.” Yesterday, my wife picked her up 20 minutes late; there were three black girls talking smack to her because she was by herself and the teachers had all left. My daughter is stressed out because she can’t even walk down the hallway without having to deal with this bullshit. She went to Bunnell Elementary last year and none of this went on there; she loved that school. The point is, if there is a “disproportionate” number of black kids being disciplined, it is because a majority of the serious discipline issues involve them, at least at BTMS. These kids are ruining the school for all of the students who want to get an education. Now, I’m certainly not saying all black kids are causing problems; there are many that are doing well, of course. However, to stand there and try to convince everyone that minority kids are being singled out because of their skin color is a crock; they’re being singled out because they aren’t behaving well and they disrupt the education of those who actually want to succeed in life.

  19. Outsider says:

    Mansa, I believe, if I am correct I know Geode as an acquaintance (there aren’t many people with that name.) He is most definitely black. It’s amazing how some people who seem reasonably intelligent destroy their credibility right out of the gate.

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