Local school officials and community leaders continue working with students and encouraging them to graduate high school, a premise at the heart of improving the graduation rate in Polk County.

That number increased from 86.5 percent to 88.8 percent in 2018-19 among Polk County’s 14 traditional public high schools.

“Improving the graduation rate equates to success in our community,” said Tami Dawson, regional assistant superintendent for high schools. “High schools have created many academies based on the demands of our local economy. Research shows students who participate in an academy have better attendance and higher graduation rates.”

Polk County offers 112 academies in middle and high school, ranging from culinary arts and finance to agriscience and media production. Some, like the Lakeland Electric Power Academy at Tenoroc High School, help prepare students for jobs after graduation — a talent pipeline local companies favor.

“The students are plugged into something that interests them in preparing for their futures,” Dawson said. “Our students are better prepared to fulfill workforce needs in this ever-changing environment, as evidenced by the rise in industry certifications earned in our academies.”

Ideas at Work

Dawson said she thinks the graduation rates would have increased again this year if classes hadn’t been disrupted because of the coronavirus pandemic. She said the district has taken action that includes:

  • Adding success coaches to all high schools to build relationships and support students in the educational environment — and beyond.
  • Using data on two platforms — a dashboard the district created and one called Unify. “Both of these platforms assist our schools in keeping not only the students who most need support at the forefront, but also challenging our students who excel in their studies.”
  • Taking a more strategic approach to classroom instruction by aligning learning targets and tasks to better engage our students.
  • Developing systems to support individual schools to account for all of our students.

Principals noted several areas they’ve been working on that they think have helped improve graduation rates:

  • Talking with teachers to identify students whose grade-point averages indicate they are struggling or falling behind, then offering after-school tutoring and guidance on classes the students should take to help them recover.
  • Monitoring grades and attendance and following up with students who are at risk of not graduating.
  • Monitoring data and holding student conferences to ensure all students are successful.

“We will continue to leave no stone unturned when it comes to our students. Teachers and administrators continue to offer support to those students who need them and challenge all students to succeed at the next level,” Dawson said.

The Talent Pipeline

Graduating from high school is a critical part of the talent pipeline that a local committee (created by Polk Vision and the Central Florida Development Council) hopes to sustain, said Dr. Orathai Northern, vice president of Workforce Education & Economic Development at Polk State College and chairwoman of the Talent Pipeline Committee. “We also hope to support the School District in its efforts to provide internship opportunities for high school students. This would greatly impact their marketability.”

Pauline Simmonds-Brown, community engagement coordinator for Polk Vision, said keeping the lines of communication open is critical right now. “While we’re graduating students, we also want to make sure they are prepared to fill the workforce needs. Students need to remain engaged, know there’s a place for them after they cross the stage.”

For additional information about this topic or how to partner with Polk Vision and Central Florida Development Counil as a member of the talent pipeline committee, please contact Lindsay Zimmerman at lindsay@cfdc.org.