Before they walk across a stage to accept their diploma, high school students put in years of hard work. For some, the journey is longer than for others.
The vast majority make it through high school in four years. But more than 6,000 Georgia students needed additional time, according to data analyzed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for the class of 2011.
In Clayton and DeKalb counties, nearly one in 10 students took five or more years, the data showed.
These so-called “super seniors” create millions of dollars in additional costs for taxpayers and present school officials with other challenges. Some students are in their 20s when they finally leave high school behind.
But with a state graduation rate of 67.5 percent, the third worst in the nation, the super seniors offer a counterpoint: profiles in persistence.
Robert Velasquez finished Riverdale High School this month, seven years after he began and days away from his 21st birthday.
“I always had my ups and downs,” said Velasquez, who took a roughly two-year break from school to make money to cover his expenses and help his family pay the bills.
Velasquez missed not graduating with his classmates, but said family came first. He’s now looking forward to getting a stable job, putting aside money for technical school and pursuing a career in the automotive trade.
Education officials say the phenomenon of long-term students could grow with a rigorous new curriculum, as well as aggressive efforts to prevent kids from dropping out. Super seniors moved into the spotlight after the state went to a new national formula for calculating graduation rates. The new rate no longer factors in students who took five, six, seven or more years to earn a diploma.
Tammie Roach, academic coordinator for the Performance Learning Center in Marietta City Schools, said some long-term students struggle academically. For others, she said, “life has gotten in the way.”
Noe Lorenzo, a fifth-year senior at the center, said he started having problems as early as elementary school. That’s one reason, he said, he still doesn’t know proper cursive writing.
Lorenzo, a California native, said he found school boring and most of his teachers not that helpful. His parents, who each work two jobs, hadn’t gone very far in school and haven’t been able to help much, either.
“They keep trying to motivate me. They don’t want to see me struggling like they do,” Lorenzo said. “Even I see you can’t make it now in life without a high school diploma or college.”
About 40 to 50 super seniors attend the Marietta performance center each year, complete the classes they need and return home to their high school for graduation. Lorenzo was among them this year.
A student staying in school longer costs more. The average yearly price tag to educate a student is $10,587 in state and local tax dollars. The AJC found that in 2011 there were 6,071 students who took five or more years to graduate. That translates into roughly an additional $64 million, depending on how far behind they are.
Still, education experts such as Jim Hull, a senior policy analyst with the National School Boards Association, say that’s far less than the overall costs incurred because of high school dropouts. Researchers say dropouts are more likely to use social services, land behind bars and be either unemployed or in low-wage jobs.
“Students who drop out are much more costly to society in the long run,” Hull said.
Under the new federal calculation, Georgia’s graduation rate tumbled 13 percentage points from 80.9 percent to 67.5 percent in 2011. The AJC reported earlier this year that school officials, prior to the federal changes, often masked dropouts as transfer students.
As the emphasis on graduating students increases, education leaders say the super seniors must remain a priority.
“Naturally, our goal is for them to graduate in four years. However, we know through research that not all children learn in the same way at the same pace,” state school Superintendent John Barge said. “If it takes some of them longer, I would rather them stay and earn the diploma than to quit.”
And it’s not just high school. College is no longer a four-year experience for many. The office of Gov. Nathan Deal said only 44 percent of students attending a public four-year college in Georgia graduate in six years.
School districts have an array of programs to help super seniors make it to graduation. Marietta has the Performance Learning Center, and Gwinnett County, the state’s largest school district, has programs where students who have fallen behind can “recover” course credits after school and even at lunchtime, said Steve Flynt, associate superintendent for school leadership and operations.
“As long as those students want to continue to try, we’ll work with them until they graduate or turn 21,” Flynt said. After students turn 21 they must pay tuition in order to continue taking high school courses.
Hull said there is little reliable information nationally that could point to whether high school students today are taking longer to graduate. And in Georgia there isn’t data immediately available to show whether the numbers have been moving.
But both Barge and Hull said they expect the number of long-term students to grow.
In Georgia, there’s not much room for failure. Students who take a traditional six-period day earn 24 credits and need 23 to graduate.
In addition, new high school graduation requirements adopted in 2007 and effective for ninth-graders in 2008 require all students to have four units of credits in English, math and science, said Pam Smith, director of curriculum and instruction for the state Department of Education.
Isaiah Pickett of Marietta said as his grades slipped he blamed everyone but himself and started skipping school, failing to turn in his work. After losing a year, he made his way back to school.
Now, he’s ready to graduate and has plans to attend Chattahoochee Tech with the goal of becoming a barber.
“Five years is long enough,” he said.
“I got myself together in 2012,” Pickett said. “I felt like I let my family down when I didn’t graduate.”
And he’s ready to pass along a lesson learned.
“I tell my brother [a freshman in high school] — learn from my mistakes,” Pickett said.