Equal Time: State on path to improve its grad rate

If you just looked at the 2008 graduation rate for Alonzo Crim Open Campus High School in Atlanta, you'd see that it was very low. You might wonder what was going on at Crim.

But the number doesn't tell the whole story.

To really learn about Crim, you would have to step inside the building, which is clean, neat and orderly. You would have to talk to the teachers and staff, who are dedicated and passionate about educating young people.

Mostly, you would have to hear the stories of the students, who face almost unimaginable challenges in getting their education and would have dropped out if they hadn't had the opportunity to attend Crim. The teachers at Crim still have high expectations for their students, but the school provides flexibility and programming that supports the unique circumstances these students face every day.

I'm proud to say this type of innovation is happening across the state — schools are doing whatever it takes to help students stay in school, get their high school diploma and raise our graduation rate. Still, no matter how you calculate it, Georgia's graduation rate is too low.

That is why the No. 1 goal at every level is to increase our high school graduation rate. Everyone knows that getting a high school diploma is the most important step a person can take toward a life of success.

Of course, calculating the graduation rate isn't as easy as it sounds. For the past several years, Georgia and more than half the other states have been using a federally approved formula called the "leaver rate." I'm very pleased that over the past six years our graduation rate has increased from 63 percent to over 75 percent using this formula. The leaver rate, like most graduation rates, is an estimate and has its strengths and weaknesses.

Over the next few years, all states, including Georgia, will move to a "cohort rate," perhaps the most accurate calculation. This requires a strong student information system that can track students from school-to-school, system-to-system and even state-to-state.

Georgia now has a system like this and is gathering the data we need to move to a cohort rate. Additionally, we've begun working with local school systems to improve the way we keep track of students and report dropouts. All of this will take some time, but I expect that over the next few years we'll be able to fully implement the cohort graduation rate formula. When we do, we will have a new graduation rate, and it will probably start at a lower point than we are at right now.

But that's OK — in order to tackle a problem, you must be able to quantify it. But even then, the graduation rate won't tell you everything you need to know about what is going on in Georgia's schools. We are using many strategies to help students get a meaningful diploma that will prepare them for the 21st century, including:

» A more focused and rigorous curriculum in the crucial core areas of mathematics, science, social studies and English language arts.

» More planning tools for students and parents to chart a course for high school and post-secondary education, like www.GaCollege411.org.

» Improved career, technical and agricultural education programs and the establishment of career academies to keep students engaged and provide them the relevant knowledge and training they need to compete.

» Increased opportunities for accelerated students to take college-level courses while still in high school through dual enrollment, Advanced Placement, virtual classes and other programs.

» A virtual credit recovery program that gives a student who has fallen behind the chance to catch up.

» Graduation coaches working in most of our middle and high schools to identify students who are at risk of dropping out and get them the help and support they need.

I'd encourage you to go to our Strategic Plan Web site, www.gadoe.org/strategicplan.aspx, and take a look at the strategies behind Goal 1. You'll see that raising Georgia's graduation rate will require a lot more than simply a new grad rate calculation. And some of that work is aimed at getting students a diploma through non-traditional routes, like a GED, which won't show up in our graduation rate.

In fact, some of the students from Crim will take more than four years to graduate and will not show up in our graduation rate, either. But what really matters is that they will still get their diploma and be on the road to a more successful life. In 2005, when Crim moved from a traditional high school to an Open Campus, the first thing the new principal, Angelisa Cummings, asked for was a pair of gloves and a gray trash can. She and the school's longtime custodian, Ronnie Jones, spent their first morning together scrubbing the building.

That was the beginning of a lot of focused effort, hard work and collaboration at Crim. The result is that this Friday, about 100 students who otherwise would have dropped out will walk across the stage and get their diploma.

Sure, Crim still has work to do, but it is making progress on its graduation rate. Across the state, Georgia's public schools are working hard to get more students than ever a meaningful diploma.

It won't be easy and it will take time. But I truly believe that if we stay on our current path, we will continue to see our graduation rate rise substantially in the coming years, no matter how you calculate it.

Kathy Cox is state school superintendent and a former high school social studies teacher.