Graduation rates jump in 15 schools

Fifteen Georgia high schools graduated at least 85 percent of their students in 2008, improving their graduation rates by at least 10 percentage points over five years, according to research by the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education.

The partnership released its findings Thursday at Grady High School, one of seven metro Atlanta schools cited in the report.

“What this shows is that we really can have schools that can have extraordinary successes,” said Steve Dolinger, president of the Georgia Partnership, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization focused on improving student achievement. “It’s not going to happen overnight, and it’s not going to happen without real hard work. Putting the right pieces in place and staying the course is what works.”

Although the state’s graduation rate has shown a steady increase over the last few years, Dolinger said these schools, in particular, helped lift the state average.

In addition to Grady, Mays High School in Atlanta, Redan High in DeKalb, Riverwood and Westlake in Fulton, Buford High in Buford and Loganville Hill in Walton County also made the list.

Had they extended to six the number of years the agency investigated, some 30 more schools would have shown similar increases, said Dolinger.

He said the partnership decided to take a closer look at the graduation rates in 2008 to pinpoint the schools that had shown significant and sustained increases between 2004 and 2008.

“When we started to look at the numbers, a group of schools stood out,” he said. “We wanted to know what they were doing and what were the commonalities we could share as best practices.”

The schools, for instance, worked with the community to create a culture of success, and administrators and teachers worked together to make the curriculum relevant and fostered relationships with students and their families.

“In many cases, graduation coaches took the percentages and turned them into names, helping students over the goal line,” Dolinger said.

Grady Principal Vincent Murray said the school formed a community-based tutorial program. Instead of waiting for students to come to them, they formed a team of teachers and made it visible in the community, he said.

“We found our kids wanted to take advantage of tutorial but home called them more strongly,” said Murray. “We put together a team of teachers and went to them. The participation rate has been phenomenal. We even had parents come out to find out what we were doing.”

A report released last summer by the Jobs for the Future advocacy group and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, a think tank working to focus attention on the national problem, found that one-third of Georgia high schools have low graduation rates.

Although high schools with low graduation rates exist in every state and in many communities, Georgia, the study found, was one of five states with the worst graduation rates. The others were Florida, Nevada, New Mexico and South Carolina.

Overall, the state’s rate has improved slightly, from 75.3 percent to 77.8 percent from 2008 to 2009.

Dolinger said he doubts recent furloughs and layoffs or increases in class size can circumvent that trend.

“These high schools have created such a strong culture, we’ll weather the storm,” he said. “The schools are so determined they’re going to help students be successful, I think their culture will carry them.”