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Newberry High School celebrates high graduation rate

Newberry High School’s marquee sign reads, “Once a panther, always a panther!” Principal Sheppard explained that from the time students are at Newberry Elementary School, they are a part of the panther community. (Lauren Suggs/WUFT News)
Newberry High School’s marquee sign reads, “Once a panther, always a panther!” Principal Sheppard explained that from the time students are at Newberry Elementary School, they are a part of the panther community. (Lauren Suggs/WUFT News)

On May 27, 2022, soon-to-be Newberry High School graduates lined the Exactech Arena as they waited for their names to be called during their commencement ceremony. Little did they know, their class of 135 graduates would be the most successful 2022 graduating class.

Newberry High School tops the graduation rate list with a graduation rate of 98.5%. Despite Alachua County and the state of Florida experiencing drops in overall graduation rates for the 2021-22 school year, Newberry High School’s rate increased, allowing it to earn the highest graduation rate among Alachua County public schools.

Newberry High School Principal James Sheppard said he was excited to hear about the school’s graduation accomplishment.

“I think the best thing you can do for any student is to make sure they have a diploma,” Sheppard said.

Following closely behind Newberry High School were Professional Academies Magnet at Loften High School (98.3%), Buchholz High School (95.9%), Santa Fe High School (88.8%) and Gainesville High School (88.7%), with Eastside High School (88.4%) and Hawthorne Middle/High School (81.4%) rounding out the list for Alachua County public schools.

Emily Purcell has a sophomore at Newberry High School. One of her sons, Levi Purcell, was admitted to the Academy of Criminal Justice at the school. This program allows him to focus on a potential career and work with teachers who share his interests.

Purcell said she feels that the school’s success stems from the faculty. She described the principal of Newberry High School as personable and said that the teachers are “very responsive” when it comes to helping students.

“I feel like [teachers are] just working with the students,” Purcell said. “They want them to succeed.”

Over the last few years, the school has had a history of graduation success. In the 2018-19 school year, Newberry High was the first Alachua County public school to achieve a 100% graduation rate. But the COVID-19 pandemic changed that the following year.

Newberry High School Assistant Principal Melissa Mauldin explained that the 2020 graduation and testing requirements were relaxed due to the pandemic and online schooling. Graduation rates fell in the following two school years, with the school earning a 99.3% and a 97.9% graduation rate, respectively.

Post-pandemic, the school works to achieve high graduation rates by focusing on student needs.

“The vision that we have at this school is that we’re all in it together,” Mauldin said.

She said the school focuses on communication between faculty, staff, students, administration, and parents and guardians to ensure that the expectations for graduation are clearly communicated and that help is always readily available for those who need it.

“We continue to work with our students and prepare them, offering them every opportunity that we can to help them do well. Not just in class by earning their credits and getting their GPA, but also helping the students that need extra help with test-taking strategies and study strategies and those kinds of things as well,” Mauldin said.

In his fifth year as principal of the school, James Sheppard said the support from Newberry High School administration and staff wasn’t the only thing contributing to their high graduation rate. Sheppard attributes a large part of the school's success to the community. He said Newberry’s “small-town feel” allows the community to “feel like family.”

Newberry is a close-knit community with a population roughly 19 times smaller than that of Gainesville. According to the 2020 U.S. Census, Newberry’s population was about 7,300 residents.

Sheppard also credits the high graduation rate to the surrounding elementary school, middle school, business partners and teachers.

“They’re a huge part of making this happen, and we want to thank them as well,” he said.

Touching on the “small-town feel” of the community, Newberry Mayor Jordan Marlowe wrote of the school’s success on Facebook while congratulating the students and faculty.

“Our Principals and teachers truly create communities on their campuses that foster success,” he wrote.

While the school continues to strive for a 100% graduation rate in the years to come, Mauldin wants her students to know that they have a future of opportunities waiting for them after succeeding in high school. She said she wants the students to use high school as a way to find what they’re interested in while keeping “an open mind of all that they can do beyond high school.”

“Ultimately, I want every student to leave here as a productive member of our community,” Mauldin said.

Lauren is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.