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Thousands of Students Not Counted In Florida's Graduation And Dropout Rates

High school hasn’t been easy for 19-year-old Michael Turner.

"Before I came to Ghazvini, at Leon High school it wasn’t that the work was hard. But I got into a lot of trouble,” he says.

Michael goes to Leon County’s Success Academy at the Ghazvini Learning Center. It’s is a second-chance school for kids who have fallen behind or have been expelled.  Michael falls into the first category. He says he was always a good kid, but when he got to high school, things changed. He says he was more into having fun than learning and prone to getting into trouble.

“One time, I was in class and I was very hungry, and it was the class before lunch and my teacher caught me, and sent me up to the disciplinary office and I had to sit there until the end of class.” 17s

Michael says he realized he had fallen behind when he was a junior but had less than half the credits he needed to graduate. So he transferred to the Success Academy and is now back on track. His teacher, Shawn Willett says with a few more classes, Michael could be graduating with a standard high school diploma this Summer. But Willett also says others at the school won’t be as lucky.

“I’ve been teaching this program for about 18 months, and for this program I’d say we had about 26 graduate and I’d say we had just as many who left the Leon County School system.”  

Life in America has gotten much harder today if you don’t at least have a high school diploma. For millions of Americans, that little piece of paper makes the difference between landing a job and being unemployed. Everything from future earnings to quality of life is affected by whether a person has a diploma. With so much at stake Florida still ranks in the bottom of states when it comes to graduation rates. But those numbers don’t tell the full story.

In order to get a standard diploma, Florida students have to pass the state’s FCAT exams, end-of-course tests, and all of his classes.

The Success Academy at Ghazvini mixes online learning with in-person instruction to help students get caught up.  But not every kid will.  Some won’t be able to recover the credits they lost. Others can’t pass the FCAT or the end-of-course exams and will choose to get a GED instead.

“It’s case by case. We just have to dig around in the pool to figure out what will motivate that child,” says school Principal Joe Pons.

He says his teachers work hard to inspire their students, but at the same time, he acknowledges they can’t stop every kid from leaving.

“At the end of the day the only solace is to know that you tried to push every button, that you haven’t had a bad day, that you gave it your best shot with every child.”

Florida has several diploma types but the only one that counts in Florida’s graduation rate is the standard diploma. Students who have low GPA’s, not enough course credits or who don’t or can’t pass the FCAT and end-of-course exams get what are called “certificates of completion”, which aren’t counted. Those who take more than five years to graduate also aren’t factored into the traditional graduation rate either.

Meanwhile, Michael is looking forward to earning his diploma this Summer, and he’s excited, because he’s got plans once he finishes high school and that involves going into the Army, “because they have a job I like. It’s like working with Media, video cameras and things like that.”

More than 140,000 Florida High schoolers will graduate this year and most will earn a standard diploma. Several thousand will earn special diplomas and GED’s. But of those students who started school four years ago, about 9,000 will have left school without any kind of credential at all.

For more news updates, follow Lynn Hatter on twitter @HatterLynn