Wearing graduation caps and nervous smiles, the Columbia High School sophomores walked one by one through a blue, white and orange balloon arch at the center of the gymnasium. It symbolized their journey through high school so far: two years down, two more to go. In the time they have left, there’s a lot of room for error — but also a lot of room for success.

That’s what school and district officials wanted to remind students at one of the DeKalb County School District’s first ever half-cap ceremonies.

“You are outstanding. You are brilliant,” school board member Deirdre Pierce told the sophomores on Thursday. “You have something the world is waiting for.”

The journey to graduation can be difficult. In DeKalb, where the graduation rate last year was about 76%, roughly a quarter of students in a freshman class won’t finish high school in four years. It was 72% at Columbia High. The statewide rate was about 84%.

The half-cap ceremonies are part of a districtwide effort to improve those odds. Students who are on track to graduate in two years got to participate at a handful of DeKalb schools with lower graduation rates.

“There’s a lot of data that you lose students during that time after they’re sophomores,” said Superintendent Devon Horton in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “So we want to celebrate that, hey, you’re halfway there.”

The Columbia High students were reminded of that in speeches from Pierce, Principal Derrica Denise Boochee-Davis, and the school’s two senior valedictorians, Zoe Carter and Leah Johnson.

“If at all you are stuck, do not let this deter you from continuing forward,” the valedictorians counseled in their speech. “Reach out to others around you, because many people will aid you in this journey and be there for support.”

The half-cap ceremonies are one of several ways DeKalb is attempting to help students navigate to graduation and afterward. Horton wants every senior to walk across the stage at graduation with a diploma in one hand, and a plan for what they’re doing after graduation in the other — whether it’s enrolling in college, enlisting in the military, employment or entrepreneurship.

In addition to the ceremonies, the district has added extra staff to mentor students who are at risk of not graduating and help all students figure out their post-secondary plans. And the district will cover the cost of the ACT or SAT for juniors starting next year.

Just weeks before the end of the school year, the Columbia High sophomores listened patiently. Some of them were dressed up in blazers or high heels, and waved to their families in the bleachers as if they were on a Hollywood red carpet. Others kept their head down to hide shy smiles while they waited for their names to be called. Approximately 200 students participated in the ceremony.

“It felt like a lot of eyes on you,” said sophomore Bryson Bigsby after walking through the balloon arch himself. The 16-year-old knows what it’s like to fall behind. His grades slipped after his freshman year, and his dad set up meetings with all of his teachers.

“I was getting too comfortable,” he said. The football and basketball player has pulled his grades back up now, and knows from experience that the speakers gave good advice.

In the audience, Sharonda Simmons held her phone high to record every step her granddaughter made through the arches. Time is flying by, she said, and it’s been a bit of a struggle to keep her granddaughter focused.

“This is a good thing for them, motivating them at the halfway mark,” she said.

After the ceremony, 15-year-old Nevaeh Sampson said it felt good to know that she’s on track to finishing. She’s grateful to have already been able to play sports and participate in ROTC. Now she’s looking forward to seeing what comes next.

“Honestly, I’m just ready,” she said.