Georgia’s graduation rate ticks up, stays low

Staff writers Ty Tagami, Rose French, Greg Bluestein, Nancy Badertscher and Mark Niesse contributed to this article.

If Santa Claus was handing out goodies to states with great graduation rates, Georgia would get a lump of coal. Again.

The state’s four-year graduation rate is 71.5 percent, a rise of almost 2 percentage points from the year before, according to data released Wednesday by the Georgia Department of Education. The 2013 rate is also up four percentage points from where it was in 2011, when the federal government moved to a more rigorous way of calculating the rate.

Despite the improvement, backflips were on hold, as Georgia’s rate is still among the worst in the country.

States release graduation rates at different times, making state-to-state comparisons difficult. That’s probably a good thing for Georgia. Only two states, New Mexico and Nevada, had lower rates than Georgia in 2011, when the U.S. Department of Education released a state-by-state breakdown using the new method of calculating the rate.

Standardizing the rate doesn’t mean all high school diplomas are equal. Among Georgia and the states it borders, only Georgia and Alabama require four credits of English, math and science to graduate. Students can earn a diploma in Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee and North Carolina with three credits of science.

Some states also still award different types of diplomas. Georgia has eliminated its former career/technical diploma, which required less rigorous coursework than a college-prep diploma.

Still, a graduation rate of 71.5 in Georgia could only be appreciated in the context of previous years.

“Under a more rigorous calculation method, the trend still shows that the percentage of our high school students graduating increases year to year,” Georgia Superintendent John Barge said. “Despite the economic challenges our districts are facing, we have more high school students graduating today than we have had in several years, which is a testament to the hard work of our students and teachers.”

Gov. Nathan Deal, being challenged by Barge and others as he seeks re-election, gave some love to charter schools as part of the reason for the uptick. “It’s a sign that educators are becoming more aware that old models don’t necessarily achieve the results,” the governor said. “They are being innovative, and you’re seeing a lot of charters come into the picture, and a lot of charters within our public schools that have proven to be beneficial.”

Indeed, the graduation rates of some charter schools are rousing success stories. The Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science and Technology again was a pace-setter with 100 percent. Some charters, however, struggled. Destiny Achievers Academy in DeKalb, for example, has a graduation rate of 36.8 percent.

Most districts in metro Atlanta saw improvements. Atlanta Public Schools’ rate surged nearly 8 percentage points to 58.6 percent, no longer the most wretched in metro Atlanta. That dubious distinction now belongs to Clayton County, 55.8 percent.

“The increase in our graduation rate can be attributed to many factors,” APS spokeswoman Kimberly Willis Green said, including intensive professional development for teachers, innovations such as the Atlanta Virtual Academy, “and the fact that our schools have done a better job of tracking students with high mobility rates.”

As they do on many marks of academic achievement, affluent districts tended to perform better. Decatur City, at 93.9 percent, has the highest rate in metro Atlanta, followed by Forsyth, 89.5 percent and Fayette, 87.3 percent. Gwinnett, the state’s largest district, is at 72.7 percent. Cobb’s rate is 76.5 percent, and Fulton’s 75.5 percent.

DeKalb’s rate is 58.9 percent, but there were bright spots there and throughout the area.

Arabia Mountain High in DeKalb, a specialty school that requires students to maintain a 3.0 grade-point average, saw its graduation rate rise to nearly 97 percent from about 86 percent the year before. Principal Rodney Swanson credits parental involvement and a school culture of high expectations. Teachers spend extra time making sure their students succeed and meet with Swanson when 20 percent or more of them are failing a particular class.

Tanya Graham, a parent there, said the school benefited from motivated parents and students and selective admissions. About a fifth of the students attend an engineering magnet program with the rest studying in a career-oriented “theme” program with “pathways” in nursing, or multimedia or environmental science. Parents commit to volunteering at least 10 hours, manning the front desk, cleaning the grounds or sorting library books.

“All of the students have to be accelerated or gifted, so it is extremely hard to get in,” Graham said, adding that the graduation rate increased after the summer when a handful of students completed the necessary coursework. “All of them graduated.”

At Westlake High in Fulton, whose graduation rate rose 12 percentage points to 76 percent, principal Grant Rivera said a sharper focus on end-of-course tests and the state graduation exam, which trip many students, has led to improvements.

Having students make up failed classes through online courses has been a big help, too, he said.

Dazja Little, an 18-year old senior at Westlake, said she’d have no chance of graduating this spring if not for those online courses. She said discipline issues contributed to her failing several classes as a sophomore. A suspension from school that year was “a big eye-opener to me,” she said. “I couldn’t play around anymore.”

Now, she’s on track to graduate and hopes to attend Kennesaw State University next fall.

“I know I can get it done,” she said. “I know I’m going to graduate.”