More than 200 seniors at the former “dropout factory” known as Miami Jackson Senior High School were about to walk across a stage and become high school graduates.
For student leaders, it was a moment to talk about memories and all they had yet to accomplish. But Principal Carlos Rios used his speech to celebrate something significant that they had already achieved: Nearly nine in 10 members of the class of 2014 had earned diplomas.
“The class of 2014 will forever change the way our school is viewed,” Rios told the cap-and-gown crowd. “They will be graduating with one of the highest, if not the highest, graduation rates in the history of the school.”
Dozens of high schools across South Florida have held graduation ceremonies over the past few weeks and, like Jackson, many have seen the percentage of their kids collecting diplomas soar.
In Broward and Miami-Dade — where the chances of graduating on time were a coin flip just a decade ago — graduation rates have reached the mid- and upper-70th percentile. Thousands more seniors now earn diplomas on time, and inner city schools where fewer than half the students once made it now graduate three in four.
The spike is happening at both traditional and charter schools across Florida. Studies show the state still has among the nation’s lowest graduation rates, but the numbers are swiftly improving. The U.S. Department of Education also announced record graduation rates nationally this year, topping 80 percent.
Skeptics wonder whether the rosy figures are buoyed by loopholes in the formula used to determine effectiveness at graduating high school freshmen in the standard four years.
But education experts and advocates say the dramatic turnaround is real.
John Gomperts, CEO of America’s Promise Alliance, a coalition that is part of the GradNation campaign to boost national graduation rates, called Florida’s success a microcosm of what is going on nationally.
“Something really interesting is happening in America,” he said.
Graduation rates for seniors who earned diplomas in the past two weeks are not yet available. But in South Florida, the number of graduating seniors has risen by 8,300 students since 2003 even as high school enrollment has declined.
In Miami-Dade and Broward, struggling inner city high schools have made some of the most dramatic turnarounds in Florida. Administrators point to an array of improvements: There are better systems for tracking where students are falling behind on credits and test scores; class schedules and curriculum are tailored to specific students; high schools strive to create a college-like culture by, for instance, increasing the number of Advanced Placement courses.
Both school districts also pay for student fees to take and retake crucial exams, and some schools have added an extra class period to the day, allowing more flexibility for students who need to take remedial classes and make up credits.
“Students, from the moment they walk into ninth grade, are told you will graduate from this school. That’s non-negotiable,” said Miami-Dade Associate Schools Superintendent Pablo Ortiz, who oversees the district office tasked with raising the performance of struggling schools.
If graduation rates are an indicator of success, then what Miami-Dade and Broward are doing in their underperforming high schools is working wonders. Two in three black students and more than six in 10 students new to the English language now graduate, where fewer than half once earned diplomas. Schools considered “dropout factories” — where less than 60 percent of students graduate — now churn out diplomas.
Ortiz became principal in 2009 at one such school, Miami Edison Senior High, where the graduation rate in 2003 was lower than 20 percent.
Last year, Edison’s graduation rate hit 70 percent — a 250 percent increase over the past decade that is unmatched by any other non-alternative high school in Florida.
Other schools share similar turnaround stories. Miami Jackson doubled its graduation rate from less than 40 percent to 85 percent last year. In Broward, Blanche Ely and Dillard high schools have pushed their rates past 90 percent, almost double what they were 10 years ago.
Fort Lauderdale High School Principal Priscilla Ribeiro said the school has become more involved in helping seniors. Graduation rates, once in the 40s, topped 90 percent last year. Now, struggling students keep working for their diplomas, retaking exams through the summer to try to graduate along with the rest of their class.
“They’re so happy, they’re crying when they come in and turn in their scores,” Ribeiro said. “You just don’t give up on them.”
Miami Jackson principal Rios said the FCAT is the most-common roadblock for students who don’t graduate on time. That was almost the case with Alexander Rivera, 18, who credited his teachers with helping him when he struggled.
“It was tough. I felt kind of down. A little bit miserable,” he said before his graduation ceremony. “But in the end I passed it and I’m here, ready to graduate.”
The successes have generated national attention. Three years ago, President Barack Obama visited Miami Central and said the school’s students were “proving the naysayers wrong” by graduating in greater numbers.
After Obama’s visit, Central’s graduation rate kept going up.
And yet, as of last year, Central and some other South Florida schools with skyrocketing rates were actually graduating fewer seniors than 10 years ago.
Schools officials and enrollment figures suggest that is because of plummeting enrollments, in some cases attributed to families transferring their children after schools were branded as failing by the state.
Some experts, though, believe the graduation rates are being inflated by the transfer of poorly performing students.
“If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is,” said Brian Peterson, a Florida International University professor and editor of the Miami Education Review.
Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said such allegations are unfounded and “pretty insulting” to hard-working students and teachers.
“I don’t know where that [criticism] comes from, and I’d rather not acknowledge it,” he said, noting that under the federal guidelines that Florida adopted in 2010, students who transfer out to adult-education programs or to earn their GED are still counted as non-graduates. Plus, he said, as graduation rates have gone up, so have test scores and the numbers of students passing Advanced Placement tests.
Pinpointing the reasons for increasing graduation rates is difficult, said Jack Buckley, a former commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics. But he said there has been an obvious policy shift from the federal government on down to the states to improve graduation chances.
Buckley, who now heads research for the College Board, said the trend line is clearly positive in South Florida, where more graduates are earning diplomas.
“It’s pretty clear their numbers have gone up in recent years,” he said.
School principals say the turnaround in graduation rates is also linked to a better understanding that students need more help from guidance counselors and school staff members in working toward college acceptance and in making up for lost credits or retaking failed exams. Both school districts also pay for students to take the ACT exam, which can serve as a replacement for the FCAT if students pass it.
At Jackson’s graduating ceremony last week at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Rios read off a list of the universities where graduates are headed. Collectively, he said, students earned close to $3 million in scholarships.
Quinton Flowers, Jackson’s starting quarterback, walked across the stage to loud cheers. Ahead of that moment, as friends snapped selfies and hugged their teachers, he thought about those who helped him along after his mother died of cancer two years ago. Flowers is headed to the University of South Florida to play quarterback, something he can do only with a diploma in hand.
“Miami Jackson is a place where you can be and feel at home. All the teachers care about you and help you succeed in life. They’re behind you,” said Flowers, 19. “My teachers taught me the right things, not only about school but about life. You got to work for everything you want out there. Nothing comes to you free.”