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Vero High takes quantum leap in graduation rates

STORY BY RAY MCNULTY (Week of February 1, 2024)

A month after receiving an “A” grade from the Florida Department of Education for the 2022-23 academic year, the county’s school district learned last week that its 95.6-percent high school graduation rate ranked No. 3 in the state.

The district’s graduation rate for the Class of 2023 not only jumped a full percentage point over the previous year, but it was also the highest on the Treasure Coast and well above the state’s 88-percent rate.

Notably, Black and Hispanic students achieved huge strides over the past four years, with 9 percent more Black students earning high school diplomas, and Hispanic students surpassing white, non-Hispanic students by graduating at a 15 percent higher rate than in the 2018-19 school year.

Since the pre-COVID school year of 2018-19, the district’s graduation rate has increased from 88.5 percent, rising more than seven percentage points and 17 places in the state rankings in a four-year period.

“To me, it’s the best indicator of a system’s success,” Schools Superintendent David Moore said of the district’s graduation rate. “To go from 89 to 96 percent – with a pandemic in between – means we’re using data to drive instruction. We’re monitoring students’ progress, adapting in real time and intervening when necessary.

“We don’t wait for students to be seniors,” he added. “We’re looking at them from their first day of ninth grade.   If a student gets behind, we provide the support needed to get to graduation.”

Both of the county’s public high schools showed improvement from their 96-percent graduation rates in 2021-22: Sebastian River climbed to 98 percent in 2022-23; Vero Beach’ High’s rate rose to 97 percent.

According to the district, the graduation rate for Black students has increased nine percentage points since 2018-19 – to 90 percent in 2022-23 – while the rate for Hispanic students has risen 15 percentage points to 98 percent.

The graduation rate for the district’s white students is 96 percent.

School Board member Peggy Jones, a career educator and former Sebastian River High School principal, praised Moore and his staff, principals throughout the district, and especially teachers.

“As soon as I got the news, I emailed all of our high school principals to congratulate them,” Jones said. “But we also have to give kudos to the elementary school and middle school teachers who sent them to high school in a position to graduate.

“Ultimately, though, it comes down to the teacher in the classroom,” she added. “You go into a classroom and you see really good instruction. But you’re also seeing more support from the district. Our superintendent has made a point of the district staff having a presence on campus.”

School Board Chair Teri Barenborg, also a career educator and former principal, credited Moore, who was hired in 2019, with setting a new tone and higher goals for what was an underachieving district under his predecessor.

“The superintendent is keeping his promises,” Barenborg said, citing not only the local graduation rate ranking No. 3 in Florida – behind only Wakulla (97.6 percent) and Walton (95.7 percent) counties – but also the first “A” grade the school district has received from the state education department since 2015.

“He came here with a plan, put his system in place and has gotten people focused on what truly matters,” she added. “Everything we do is focused on what can be done to help our students succeed.”

The district’s overall improvement under Moore’s leadership has been achieved despite a series of distractions, which include the pandemic, a stream of new state laws governing education, and a barrage of concocted culture-war issues launched by a local fringe group.

“There are still distractions, but they have nothing to do with what we do,” Moore said. “It is what it is. Our job is to focus on mission, which is to provide the students of this community with the best education possible in a safe, secure environment.”