Gwinnett dropouts graduate from online program in record numbers

Earl McLendon poses for a photograph in his study area at his Lawrenceville home on Feb. 26, 2021.  (STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

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Earl McLendon poses for a photograph in his study area at his Lawrenceville home on Feb. 26, 2021. (STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Earl McLendon struggled during his senior year at Discovery High School in Gwinnett County. Medical issues led him to miss classes and fall behind, he said. Instead of graduating last spring with the rest of his class, he dropped out.

But that wasn’t the end for McLendon. He made up the rest of his classes at Gwinnett Online Campus and became one of a record 79 students who received diplomas in December from Graduate Gwinnett, the virtual school’s program for dropouts.

“I love the program and it really helped me,” said McLendon, 18. “I think that it could help others as well.”

Graduate Gwinnett and the Gwinnett Online Campus have been growing steadily through word of mouth, Principal Christopher Ray said. The coronavirus pandemic is also exacerbating the health and economic issues that force students to drop out, Ray said. High school staff usually refer dropouts to Graduate Gwinnett for another shot at earning diplomas.

The program now has about 120 students. Between 50 and 60 typically graduate each May and December, said Ray. He hopes to grow the program within the next couple of years to graduate at least 100 students at a time.

Students with at least 18 high school credits are eligible for Graduate Gwinnett. They take the remaining courses online one by one, spending 20 days on each. The rigor and expectations in each class are the same as in traditional high schools, Ray said.

Counselors help the Graduate Gwinnett students meet their goals and think about life after high school, he said.

“It costs society a huge amount of money if they’re dropouts,” Ray said. “Receiving a diploma will help open doors for the rest of their lives.”

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Gwinnett Online Campus, the oldest online public school program in Georgia, opened in 1999. In addition to the Graduate Gwinnett students, about 700 students in grades four through 12 learn full time through the school, visiting its Lawrenceville building once a week. Another 2,300 students take up to five classes online to supplement course loads at other schools.

Lessons are individualized for students, who work online at times that best suit their schedules.

McLendon spent his junior year full time at Gwinnett Online Campus, but said he had trouble keeping up with the volume of work. He found the structure of Graduate Gwinnett suited him better.

“They just had the assignments that really mattered,” McLendon said. “Tests, quizzes, projects that allowed me to focus on the information itself rather than worry about the next due date.”

He is now attending Gwinnett Technical College online. He hopes to start a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and transfer to Kennesaw State University.

McLendon said he’s doing well as a full-time college student because his classes are free of busy work. His professors, like Graduate Gwinnett’s teachers, are hands-off but always available when needed.

“I think Graduate Gwinnett really prepared me for this,” McLendon said. “It helped me develop independence.”