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The Florida Department of Education announced Tuesday that graduation rates in Escambia County and across Northwest Florida are on the rise.

Escambia County’s 2014-15 graduation rate was up by 6.6 percent, jumping from 66 percent to 72 percent, and marking 15% increase from a low of 57.7 percent in 2010.

“We want to make sure we maintain our forward momentum,” said Superintendent of Schools Malcolm Thomas. “Graduation rates have increased every year for the last seven years.”

Thomas credited an increased focus on individual students as a key factor in the rise in graduation rates.

“We’ve become very conscious of the data on individual students,” Thomas said. “We began to identify students that were at great risk of not graduating and started to intervene.”

Thomas also highlighted the district’s expansion of career academies — special programs which focus on particular career paths over a two to four year period. “Fifty percent of middle and high school students are now enrolled in career academies,” said Thomas. Escambia County schools now boast more than 50 career academy programs.

School board chairman Bill Slayton said Tuesday that he was “elated” to hear the results. “The future is very bright in Escambia County.”

Slayton attributed the increase to the stability that the school district has had in recent years. “Having the same superintendent and school board for the past eight years has allowed us to all work in the same direction,” said Slayton. “We have had a common goal of making this better and these results are proving that it is working.”

Like Thomas, Slayton also cited the expansion of career academies as an important development. “If you are a student, and you have an interest in something and you can get started on that in high school, it’s a big plus,” said Slayton.

Despite the marked improvement, Escambia’s graduation rate still lags about five percentage points behind the statewide rate and is more than ten percentage points less than neighboring Santa Rosa County’s graduation rate. Santa Rosa schools saw a more modest increase in graduation rates last year, jumping from 82.8 percent to 83.2 percent.

Thomas understands that there is more work to be done. The two-term superintendent has filed to run for a third next year, and cites his Vision 2020 plan as the next step in improving performance. The plan includes an initiative to equip students with Chromebook computers, which will allow textbooks and schoolwork to be stored electronically. “If you’re a poor kid and you don’t have access to a connected device, you’re cut off from knowledge,” said Thomas.

The rising graduation rates in Escambia and Santa Rosa contrast with recent results in nearby Okaloosa County. While still higher than Escambia’s rate, Okaloosa County has seen its graduation rate fall in each of the past four years, dropping from 84.5% in 2011 to 82.4% in 2015.

Florida graduation rates measure the percentage of students who graduate within four years of their first enrollment in ninth grade. The rate is calculated for an adjusted cohort of students — a group of students on the same schedule to graduate — taking into account those who enter or exit the group. Only standard diploma recipients are considered as graduates in the calculation. Students who drop out, or who earn a special diploma, a GED-based diploma, a certificate of completion, or have been retained and are still in school after four years are counted as non-completers in the calculation.

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