HOLMES AND WASHINGTON COUNTIES -- As graduation rates for the 13th year at Florida high schools continued to rise across the state, Holmes County high schools remains in a second year of decline.

According to graduation rates released by Florida Department of Education (FLDOE), graduation rates increased by 1.6 percent for the 2016-17 school year, anchoring at a rate of 82.3. Although the increase is only slight, it reflects the steady climb of graduation rates over the past 13 years. In the 2015-16 year, the rates reached an all-time high at 80.7.  

While Washington County School District has generally kept up with the trend, increasing its rate from 76.3 percent in the 2015-16 school year to 77.8 percent for the 2016-17 year, Holmes County School District's graduation rates continue to fall, plummeting at a rate of 68.7 in the 2016-17 year from an already lowered 72.4 percent in the previous year.

Holmes County saw the biggest hit in graduation rates in the 2015-16 school year, when it fell in 2014-15 year from 80.5 percent of students graduating to a mere 72.4 percent. The years prior, from 2011-12 to 2012-13, the school district achieved rates higher than the state.

Holmes County School District Superintendent Terry Mears said rates dropped because FLDOE did not allow school districts to include Smart Horizons graduates, students who go to online school to achieve diplomas.

Such students make up 10-percent of graduating seniors at HCSD, he said, noting that 22 students were Smart Horizons graduates.

"It's a lagging indicator," Mears said, and it's "ludicrous" that FDLOE prohibited the use of those seniors in the data.

"It's an opportunity for the kids to have an opportunity for success because they actually get a diploma, but they're not counted as a graduate," he said. "I will continue to use that as an option because it is a positive for kids."

Mears said the graduation rate would have been "extremely" better had the Smart Horizons students been included. In fact, Mears and Curriculum and Assessment Coordinator Pam Price, said the district's rate would've increased by about 8 percent, moving the district up to a 77 percent graduation rate.

Rates are based on a cohort aggregate: a class of students are monitored throughout their high school career; graduation rates are determined by the percentage of students that graduate from that class.

It's also important to note graduation rates are impacted by many things, such as, household income, geographic location of schools, changes in FLDOE standards, and the overall economy in the area. The rate does not always speak to the quality of education provided in the school district.

"We're extremely proud of the work that is showing off the steady increase over time for the graduation rate improvement that we're seeing," Washington County School District Superintendent Joseph Taylor said Tuesday morning.

Taylor said the improvement is supported by more than one effort, he noted, particularly, "the attention that we're paying to it to make it come out -- the work our teachers are putting into it."

Last year, Washington County School District improved its grade from a "B" from a "C." Holmes County maintained a "C." Both counties have about 3,100 students each.

"Truly, the school system, we exist for that diploma, that is the success story of our graduation rates," Taylor added.