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Sumter County ranks top 10 in state grad rates

The Sumter County School District is helping even more students walk across the stage with a diploma in hand.

The district ranks eighth in the state for graduation rates, according to the Florida Department of Education, at 93.1% for the 2021-22 school year, up from 91% the year before. All three high schools in Sumter County beat the state’s average graduation rate of  87.3% in the 2021-22 school year. South Sumter High School had a rate of 94.5%, Wildwood Middle High School’s was 94.6% and The Villages High School’s was 99.5%.

“It takes a village. There isn’t one single person responsible for getting this done,” VHS guidance counselor Nicole Lake said. “Our team is always thinking outside the box, and we do have some creativity that occurs. We take our time and put a lot of personal effort into each student at VHS. Students aren’t a number here.”

No One Left Behind

When it comes to more specific rankings, Sumter ranked eighth in the state for graduating students with disabilities, with a rate of 92.3%. 

The district ranked second in graduating English language learners, students who are not yet able to communicate fluently or learn effectively in English, with a rate of 92.9%. The state graduation rate for English language learners is 73%. 

“I am so proud of the hard work put in by the students, parents and staff to improve the graduation of all students, including those with disabilities,” said Katherine Dustin, director of exceptional student education for the district.

Wildwood Middle High School showed the biggest improvement in its overall rate, going from an 88.6% graduation rate during the 2020-21 school year to 94.6%. 

Dustin cites partnerships with multiple programs as one of the reasons for the higher rates.

“The district has partnered with Project 10: Transition Education Network for many years,” she said. “Project 10 has provided multiple trainings within our district on using student data to help determine which students are on track to graduate on time, as well as those students who need additional support.”

Focusing on Students

Superintendent Rick Shirley gives credit to staff focusing on the needs of students and monitoring their individual progress. 

“While many are involved, our district graduation coach Cookie Tadlock has been a great asset, as well as Mrs. Simmons as our AVID coordinator, a program that teaches students to take personal responsibility for their success,” he said. “We also encourage career and technical education completion so that every student has the opportunity to be enrolled, enlisted or employed.”

The graduation coach for the district has taken on many tasks to help students get their diploma. 

“The graduation coach used the data and worked with all students throughout the year to not only review the individual student’s data, but to also discuss postsecondary goals,” Dustin said.

At the end of the day, it is a combined group effort that ensures students are graduating, Shirley said.

“We have one full-time graduation coach, but all staff members help encourage students to perform and complete, so really we are all grad coaches,” Shirley said. 

Striving for Perfection

The Villages High School will continue to strive for its goal of a 100% graduation rate, which it achieved in 2020-21.

Lake said relationship building and collaboration contribute to VHS’s success. 

“It’s a process, but we believe planning early, setting short-term and long-term goals and meeting with students one on one is impactful and unlike anywhere else,” Lake said. 

The counseling staff also meets with seniors individually at the beginning of each school year to make sure they have a plan and are on track.

Lake said the effort is worth it when she sees students’ hard work pay off at graduation. 

“It’s priceless,” Lake said. “Just the look on their face is so worth it.  Like I said before, having them for four years and watching it on that final day brings a special closing to that journey.”

The district as a whole also strives to achieve a perfect graduation rate. 

“We do want continuous improvement and are making progress, but we want to reach 100% graduation rate for all students,” Shirley said. 

Neighboring Counties

School districts in the tri-county area have followed state trends. Lake County Schools’ rate was above the state average, but fell to 88.6% from 90.6%.

Marion County Public Schools remained below the state average and dropped from 86.5% to 83.5%. 

The state’s average rate of 87.3% is down from 90.1% the year before, but higher than pre-pandemic rates. 

“These graduation results are the culmination of the hard work and dedication of Florida’s teachers, students, parents and school leaders, along with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision to keep schools open (during the pandemic) for in-person instruction,” Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. said in a news release.