‘Hiding dropouts’ is not the goal, OCPS says

Orange County Public Schools was the subject of a story that alleged the district distorts graduation rates by pushing low-performing students into alternative schools.

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  • | 11:15 a.m. March 8, 2017
  • West Orange Times & Observer
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Orange County Public Schools, which was the subject of a recent article published by ProPublica and USA Today, has maintained that suppressing dropout rates and artificially boosting graduation rates is not part of its agenda.

Getting students to graduate, however, is.

The piece, which claimed OCPS forces its academically struggling students out of its traditional high schools, implies the school’s intention is to ensure students at risk of not graduating in four years don’t negatively impact their graduation rates. 

The district’s motivation for doing this, the article suggested, is because a school’s letter-grade rating — which affects property values and funding eligibility — is in part dependent on graduation rates and students’ scores on the Florida Standardized Assessment tests. 

However, OCPS maintains the article, which used Olympia High School and Sunshine High School to make its point, failed to include important context and facts that challenge that idea. 

Chief among those is the reality that the district’s official overall graduation rate — which is what the Florida Department of Education uses — includes both traditional and charter schools regardless of whether they are operated by a for-profit management company.

“No movement of students between traditional and non-traditional schools has any impact on the official overall graduation rate because all schools, traditional and charter, are included in the official overall graduation rate,” said OCPS spokeswoman Lorena Hitchcock.

Students are only included in the official graduation rate if they actually graduate in four years once they enroll in their first semester of high school. That means students who fall behind academically and withdraw from a traditional school to enroll at an alternative program still count against a school’s graduation rate.

“If they fall that behind, they are already out of the cohort (a student’s freshman class) and they already count against us on our graduation rate,” said Scott Howat, OCPS’ chief communications officer. “So if they transfer to (Sunshine High School) or one of the other (Accelerated Learning Solutions) schools, they already had a negative impact on their cohort at the high school. So, that’s not the issue for us. The issue for us is to get them in a program that would best benefit them, getting them a diploma and getting them on to either post-secondary education, an industry certification or onto work.”

Shemuwel Russ graduated from Sunshine High at 18 after being home-schooled all his life. He now studies political science at Seminole State College.
Shemuwel Russ graduated from Sunshine High at 18 after being home-schooled all his life. He now studies political science at Seminole State College.

A diploma is what 19-year-old Shemuwel Russ earned after graduating from Sunshine High at 18. Although he did not enroll at Sunshine High because of a low GPA, Russ — who had been home-schooled all his life — was told that if he wanted to attend a traditional high school, he would not graduate until he was 20 because of his lack of credit hours.

Russ excelled at Sunshine High and now attends Seminole State College, where he studies political science to someday become, he hopes, the future Florida governor. His favorite aspect of Sunshine was the self-paced curriculum. 

Howat also emphasized the schools’ guidance counselors do not force academically struggling students to withdraw. Instead, the students and their families are informed of their options and given the choice to either withdraw and consider enrolling in alternative programs, or stay and graduate late. But they are reminded they cannot continue attending a traditional school once they turn 20 because of safety policies.

“There are students who, for whatever reason, fall behind and are not going to graduate on time,” Howat said. “All we’re doing is trying to provide options for families and students — to say, ‘Hey you can still get a diploma.’ It may not be at a traditional high school, or it may be. It may not be in four years. It may be in four-and-a-half years, or it may be in four years plus the summer. But we try to offer enough options and opportunities for these students to be able to get a diploma.”

Russ said some of his friends are still at their traditional high schools because they did not have enough credits to graduate in four years.

“They were telling me that their counselors said there’s an option to go to Sunshine, but a lot of my friends said no, and the school didn’t kick them out,” Russ said. “They’re still in Olympia, Dr. Phillips, Ocoee — they’re still there, currently.”

Although Russ has not read the article, he had heard about the allegations against Sunshine.

“When I hear what this reporter said, I’m just like, ‘I’ve been here — I was a student here,’” Russ said. “I have friends who were here. I know what goes on here, so to hear something like (that) — it just seems like a very ignorant, outside perspective. … It’s just such a surface-level analysis of what goes on here.”


Contact Gabby Baquero at [email protected]


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