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May 9, 2018

$10M grant helps Fla. high schools boost grad rates

College of Education oversees program that helps students with disabilities to learn more successfully

A federal grant of $10.9 million over five years is enabling Florida Gulf Coast University and the Florida Department of Education to expand statewide assistance that helps high school students with disabilities to learn more successfully and graduate.

The State Personnel Development Grant (SPDG), funded for 2017-22 by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs, was secured by and is managed through FGCU’s College of Education. The funding allows more schools and students to receive assistance through an initiative begun under a 2012-17 SPDG grant to help school districts and secondary schools improve learning proficiency and graduation rates for students with disabilities. That $8.5 million grant supported efforts in 92 schools in 21 districts.

“The program has produced remarkable results,” says SPDG Director Margaret Sullivan of the College of Education. The FGCU alumna (’06, Masters in Special Education) wrote the grant proposal, ensures that the state Department of Education meets federal requirements and coordinates the professional development and funding provided to the school districts.

Through the 2012-17 grant, graduation rates for students with disabilities increased in 75% of participating schools while dropout rates decreased in 46% of schools. Test results and grade-point averages generally improved, too.

The positive changes have been achieved by establishing and expanding practices proven to help all struggling students  succeed. These include: Check and Connect (C&C), which involves mentoring students at risk of not completing high school; and the Strategic Instruction Model (SIM), a two-pronged program that aims to strengthening core instruction and make content more accessible to all learners, and to teach struggling students strategic techniques and tools they can use to learn more successfully.

These approaches are earning good reviews and producing positive change in participating schools.

“Check and Connect training has been invaluable in helping LaBelle High School raise our graduation rate and keep it above the state rate over the last four years,” says David Kelley, principal of the Hendry County school.

Sean Strickland, an algebra teacher at Lemon Bay High School in Charlotte County, adds that regularly incorporating SIM content enhancement techniques has produced noticeable changes in how students approach new concepts and that they’re engaging more.

“They are more willing to accept challenging topics because they are presented in a manner that they are very familiar and comfortable with,” he says. “I was very pleased to see that they were buying into the routines.”

Sullivan shared the Check & Connect success story of one 18-year-old student who was significantly behind earning credits to graduate high school. He was still learning English, his family was economically disadvantaged and he and a younger sibling were be raised by a single mother who worked nights. After a year of mentoring and slow progress, he announced he was dropping out. His mother wanted him to stay in school but also needed his help at home.

His mentor created a contract to keep him in school for 30 days then reassess the decision and also arranged for an additional male mentor. A month-by-month plan was developed during which the student spoke frequently with his mentors and received academic help from a translator and a tutor. His mother was put in touch with community support services and received free after-school care for her younger child. With these accommodations and the support of his mentoring team, the boy graduated high school in May 2017.

“This is just one student among many around Florida who have benefited from the support provided to schools through the State Personnel Development Grant,” Sullivan says. “We are looking forward to seeing the impact on learning and student success multiply in the years to come.”