Students at Lithia Springs High STEM Academy work with Payton Millinor (second from left), the academy coordinator. The program, launched five years ago at the Douglas County school, helped boost the graduation rate from 55 to almost 90 percent.

Making the Grade: High school turned academics from worse to first

Five years ago, when Garrick Askew arrived at Lithia Springs High as the new principal, the Douglas County school of 1,500 students was a very different place.

“It was one of the lowest-performing Title One schools in the state, in the lowest 5 percent,” he said. “Our reduced-lunch population was about 78 percent. The graduation rate was 55 percent. I met with administrators and told them it would take all of us working as a team to make it happen. We gathered in the teachers, and I set a very high bar: to provide the best education we could to make sure our students were successful.”

The turnaround plan was specific. It began with establishing a STEM academy, created with a federal grant for low-performance schools that brought in $6 million over three years. The money funded two labs and salaries for new teachers.

“I hired an engineer with a Georgia Tech degree and someone with a background in biomedicine,” said Askew. “We added supporting courses in science and math that would get students to a Georgia Tech, Emory or Auburn.”

Curriculum changes came in other areas as well. “We set up a prep program that mirrors what it takes to get a bachelor’s degree,” said Askew. “We added an additional class period, 30 minutes at the beginning of the day, when student can get remediation where they need it most. About 65 percent have a course in the morning, and those who don’t need one have an enrichment period when they can elect to take guitar, art or photography – something based on their interests.”

Five years later, the STEM program has become a magnet with 275 students. “It’s now very competitive,” said Askew. “We’ve even had kids come from nearby Paulding and Fulton counties who pay tuition to attend.”

STEM and Advanced Placement Coordinator Payton Millinor came on board as part of the changes five years ago and helped transform a few science classes into an academy.

“When I got here, they were starting from scratch, and classes were open to any students,” she recalled. “Now, students have to apply to get in, and they’re really passionate about it. We’ve established a level of rigor. It’s not easy; they take six AP courses. Our bio-med students graduate with 11 science courses on their transcripts.”

Having the program has changed the tone of the school, said Millinor. “Our demographics haven’t changed, but the culture of the school is different now that we have a program that’s winning academic awards. It’s something the kids recognize, even if they’re not a part of it.”

At the same time, the graduation rate has shot up to 87.7 percent. “We really honed in on the idea that graduation is not an event; it’s a process that takes four years. You’ve got to support and help students earn credits along they way. When they’re not being successful in class, we have programs that support them in recovering that credit.”

Those kinds of programs and approaches recently won the school a state award for promising practices.

“Five years ago, Lithia Springs High was a place people avoided,” said Askew. “Now we’re at a level of excellence that has led to gains across the board. We’re very proud of the work we’re doing.”

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