Graduation rates increase in many metro Atlanta school districts

The Georgia Department of Education on Tuesday released graduation rates for the class of 2020. AJC FILE

The Georgia Department of Education on Tuesday released graduation rates for the class of 2020. AJC FILE

Atlanta’s high school graduation rate topped 80% for the class of 2020, an achievement that came during a pandemic that closed school buildings and disrupted the students' senior year.

The district’s four-year graduation rate is 80.3%, according to state numbers released Tuesday. School officials said that marks an all-time high and an increase above last year’s rate of 77.9%.

The graduation rate also increased statewide, reaching 83.8%. That represents a new high since 2012, when Georgia began using a federally mandated formula to calculate the rate.

During that time, the Atlanta school district has seen its graduation rate increase by nearly 30 percentage points.

“Reaching the district’s highest graduation rate culminates four years of hard work for this class,” said APS Superintendent Lisa Herring, who took office in July, in a written statement. “In addition, they completed their final semester of high school during a pandemic, which shows that our students, schools, and staff can achieve strong outcomes even amid adversity.”

In metro Atlanta, many districts saw their rates nudge higher this year. Gwinnett, DeKalb, Clayton, Cobb and Marietta were among school systems to post gains.

Among those, Cobb’s rate of 88.6% was the only one to beat the statewide average. Marietta City Schools came close with a 83.7% rate that jumped from last year by 8 percentage points.

Gwinnett reached 83.2% this year, DeKalb 76%, and Clayton 76.7%.

Fulton County Schools and the much-smaller City Schools of Decatur both exceeded the statewide average, though both districts saw their rates slip compared to last year.

This year, Fulton County’s graduation rate was 85.5%, down 1.7 percentage points. Decatur, while still having one of the state’s highest rates, slipped slightly from 95.2% last year to 94.9% this year.

Some gains that school districts achieved in the years following the formula change may have been because of better bookkeeping, as districts learned how to track transfer students more closely.

This year, the Georgia Department of Education attributed part of the statewide increase to a recent waiver that adjusts how the state counts students with the most significant cognitive disabilities.

The state received federal approval to count those students in the four-year rate for the year they graduate, even if those students began high school more than four years before. About 1% of all Georgia students fall into that category, according to the state.

After delaying graduation ceremonies for about half a year, APS on Monday held two small commencement events for the class of 2020. Graduates were invited to participate in one of two combined ceremonies held outside at Lakewood Stadium.

“If we can, on behalf of these graduates, just let loose in thunderous applause. Let them know how proud you are of this moment and to share in this experience,” said Dan Sims, an associate superintendent, as he addressed the district’s youngest alumni and their families Monday night.

In Atlanta, eight of the district’s 17 high schools saw their graduation rates improve this year.

Douglass High School, which suffered one of the district’s biggest declines last year, saw the most significant hike in 2020. The school’s graduation rate increased by almost 13 percentage points to 76.7%.

For the second year in a row, Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy reached an on-time graduation rate of 100%.

The STEAM Academy at Carver lost the most ground among Atlanta schools, dropping 10.5 percentage points to a four-year graduation rate of 58.3%.

The numbers continue to show a graduation gap between the district’s white students and students of color. In 2020, 96.7% of white students graduated on-time, compared to 77.2% of Black students and 82.8% of Hispanic students.

2020 four-year graduation rates

Atlanta: 80.3%

Clayton: 76.6%

Cobb: 88.6%

Decatur: 94.9%

DeKalb: 76%

Fulton: 85.5%

Gwinnett: 83.2%

Marietta: 83.7%

Statewide: 83.8%