With a focus squarely on high school seniors, Polk County Public Schools increased its graduation rate to a record high of 86.5%, up from 81.2% in 2019.

There were many achievements to celebrate along with the overall increase:

  • The graduation rate has increased almost 15% over the last five years.
  • The rate at the county’s 14 traditional public high schools averaged almost 92%, an increase of nearly 3% and above the statewide 90% rate.
  • The rate rose to 86.7% for black students and 85.7% for Hispanic/Latino students, up from 78.7% in 2019.

“I am so proud of our teachers, staff, students and their families,” said Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd. “The Class of 2020 was forced to remotely finish classes, and instructors found creative and innovative ways to teach from afar. PCPS employees worked tirelessly to provide meals, technology and other resources to keep students striving for success. You can’t help but be inspired by their toughness, tenacity and dedication.”

Among the traditional high schools, two schools saw increases greater than 5 percentage points: Kathleen High, which increased to 91.5% from 79.7%, and Lake Gibson High, which increased to 97.7% from 92%.

“Graduation rate is an important indicator of success not only within our local community but also as site selectors evaluate relocation and expansion sites,” says Sean Malott, President & CEO Central Florida Development Council. “Educators, students and district administrators have worked diligently this year to overcome a number of obstacles and we join them in celebrating this great accomplishment.”

Success Stories 

Former Kathleen High Principal Johnnie W. Jackson started “Believe, Belong, Be Great” to raise the school’s grade to a B. And when the pandemic hit, the KHS administration and faculty developed a support system to help students. That included ACT/SAT Saturday Boot camps and after-school ACT/SAT tutoring, among other things, said Principal Daraford Jones.

“The ACT/SAT tutoring and boot camps were facilitated by Tutoring Solutions, allowing students to discuss their personal obstacles, review the testing format, learn passage-specific strategies, take timed practice tests, improve time management strategies and use real-life examples to fully understand concepts,” Jones said.

Other actions the school took:

  • Junior and Senior Intensive Reading teachers used ACT Academy and Khan Academy to prepare their students.
  • PERT Boot camp helped prepare students to meet the Algebra 1 end-of-course requirement.
  • School counselors walked students through the ACT/SAT registration process and prepared them for testing. They also continued their traditional practice of talking with seniors, tracking their progress toward graduation requirements and communicating with their families.
  • Administrators created attendance conference schedules to ensure seniors were in school, or their parents were aware if they were not.

“The school worked to ensure every student graduated, even placing them in programs they were interested in and celebrating their successes,” Jones said. It also worked with Learning Sciences International (LSI) to improve student engagement strategies in the classroom to increase student performance.

Lake Gibson High Principal Ryan Vann said his school focused on “nurturing success in the whole student and offering multi-tiered systems of support to ensure the students met their specific needs and graduation requirements.”

Guidance counselors establish relationships with students when they enter high school and rely on the faculty and leadership team to communicate and provide further support, he said.

Both principals said they focus on all students. At Kathleen, the ESOL teacher (English for Speakers of Other Languages) and paraeducator help in reading courses, but during the pandemic, they “worked even more closely with students, families and staff to ensure lessons were understood and completed.”

The high school hired another ESOL teacher to “better support students in the core-content classrooms as well as track students that were struggling with attendance issues,” Jones said.

Vann said Lake Gibson’s school improvement plan “focuses on bridging achievement gaps between diverse subgroups. LGHS has always placed an increased focus on the at-risk students, and this became more urgent during the pandemic and continues now.”

The Pandemic

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to close for in-person learning in march, KHS administrators divided support staff into two teams, Jones said.

  • The Technical Support team continuously monitored whether any teachers required support with technology concerns.
  • The Student Support team “focused their efforts on identifying and solving any problems, issues, obstacles or challenges facing students. Deans, academic coaches, and interventionists partnered with a school counselor to support students’ needs.”

Every school counselor and support staff team tracked students who were not actively engaged in distance learning. “Students who were consistently disengaged were referred to school social workers and then school resource officers so they could make wellness checks and home visits,” Jones said.

Lake Gibson kept the lines of communication open with students and their families. “LGHS’s teachers and staff were very aware that an unprecedented event was taking place, and they were up to the challenge,” Vann said. “They showed grace, mercy and flexibility while supporting students academically and emotionally.  Often, this led to the teachers and staff thinking outside the box when it came to meeting student needs.  For instance, LGHS staff drove computers to students, provided academic support to students at all hours of the day (and night in some cases), and established calling centers to contact every student who showed evidence of struggling academically.”

The Future

District schools are continuing new initiatives that began during the pandemic as well as continuing those that existed before, said Tami Dawson, assistant regional superintendent overseeing high schools.

“Schools provide targeted tutoring to struggling students, work with attendance issues and (provide) intensive remediation in classes,” she said. “Faculty, staff and administrators are finding unique ways to continue student learning while following social distancing guidelines. Counselors continue to meet with seniors to review their graduation status, establish a plan and provide updates to students and families. Success coaches offer much-needed supports for our at-risk students and even their families.”

The goal, as always, is to ensure every student graduates, she said. “The pandemic brought about unprecedented changes, and all high schools are being reflective on improving the learning process for all students so that every student can cross that graduation finish line.”