More absences can mean fewer high school graduates

Principals, teachers look for ways to keep students in class, on track to get diplomas
Rainier Ehrhardt/Staff
Social studies teacher Jason Medlin gives a worksheet to LaKeisha Harris during a graduation test preparation class at Lucy C. Laney High School. Though it still has the area's lowest graduation rate -- 62.9 percent for the Class of 2010 -- the school is the area's most improved.

As the U.S. economy continues to add highly skilled jobs and shed low-skilled positions, a high school diploma -- and at least some college work leading to a technical certification, if not a four-year degree -- has become essential for most people seeking a successful career.


With that in mind, Frank Roberson, who took over as superintendent of the Richmond County school system in August, has repeatedly said one of his top goals is to raise the district's on-time graduation rate to 90 percent within the next three years.

The county's graduation rate for the Class of 2010 was 77.5 percent, up from 59.4 percent for the Class of 2003.

Among his proposals to help make the 90 percent goal is establishing more magnet programs to entice students to take courses they find interesting, with the idea that students who are engaged in their studies are more likely to go to school and graduate.

Impact of attendance

An analysis by The Augusta Chronicle found schools with lower rates of chronic absenteeism -- defined as missing more than 15 days in a school year -- generally had higher graduation rates.

Yet there were exceptions. Of the past five graduating classes, 2006 through 2010, a few schools -- the Academy of Richmond County and T.W. Josey and Westside high schools -- posted significant increases in the graduation and chronic absentee rates.

County school spokesman Lou Svehla said one reason might be that the Georgia Department of Education's definition of "absent" doesn't differentiate between excused and unexcused absences.

Svehla said county schools have made a concerted effort in recent years not only to keep students from dropping out but also to find those who have dropped out and urge them to come back and finish their requirements so they can graduate with a high school diploma.

Even some of those students, who might be enrolled for only two classes a day, can count against a school's attendance rate, Svehla said. The state requires high school students be present at least four out of seven class periods to be counted as present that day.

Those students do help the graduation rate, however, if they end up graduating four years after they began ninth grade.

They also help themselves.

"Sometimes a kid will come back here, and we'll do the calculation and figure out it would take them three years to get the regular diploma. We'll suggest they go for their GED," Westside Principal Debbie Alexander said. "But many of them will say, 'No, I want a regular diploma.' We are not going to argue with that.

"I always tell them, 'You'll never regret going back and getting your regular diploma. But you will always regret it if you don't.' "

Counting issues

Columbia County's graduation and attendance rates have been relatively stable the past five years. All high schools, except Harlem, have maintained rates higher than the state average and generally have chronic absentee rates of around 10 percent each year.

The opening of Grovetown High School in the 2009-10 school year hurt Harlem High. Most of Grovetown's graduating seniors had attended Harlem for their first three years, so they counted against Harlem's graduation rate, said Deputy Superintendent Sandra Carraway.

"We believe the way the state calculates the graduation rate is flawed," she said in an e-mail. "The numerator (graduating seniors) was reduced as those students went to (Grovetown), but the number in the denominator remained the same, causing a disproportionate graduation rate."

When the state begins using the new calculation for the graduation rate, that problem should be alleviated. The new formula tracks students individually, while the current one looks at the number of graduates as a percentage of the number of ninth-graders four years earlier.

National numbers

Student-level data weren't immediately available locally or for Georgia, but several studies done across the country have found that, in general, students who miss more school days are less likely to graduate. Students who don't miss many school days have a better chance to pass their classes, while those who are chronically absent have a lot of catching up to do.

Several researchers have found that a high absentee rate is a strong predictor of dropping out. One such study of the Chicago public schools, published in 2007 by the University of Chicago, found that ninth-graders who missed a month or more of classes in each semester had less than a 10 percent chance of graduating.

"Even moderate levels of absences are a cause for concern," the report said, with that sentence printed in italics for emphasis. "Just one to two weeks of absence per semester, which are typical for (Chicago Public Schools) freshmen, are associated with a substantially reduced probability of graduating. In the 2000-01 version of the report, only 63 percent of students who missed about one week (five to nine days) graduated in four years, compared with 87 percent of those who missed less than one week."

Absenteeism remains a problem at Westside High
'Tough love' reaches students at Laney High
Cross Creek High tracks each student's progress

Read Education Week's 2010 Diploma Counts report:

University of Chicago report on graduation rate:

Georgia Department of Education's explanation of the "leaver rate" calculation for graduation rate:

Georgia Report Cards: Go to, and click on drop-down menu under "Data Reporting" and click on "Report Card." From there, you can choose the state, any district or any public school and look at a number of indicators.


Georgia reaches 80 percent goal: Oct. 26, 2010:

Strategy given for school progress: Nov. 13, 2010:

The back story

Having a high school diploma in hand opens the door not only to a college education but also to an array of careers -- many of which require technical certifications that call for course work in a technical college -- and military service.

Across the nation, however, more than three in 10 ninth-graders do not graduate four years later. According to Education Week's 2010 Diplomas Count report, the national graduation rate in 2007, the latest year with national data available, was 68.8 percent.

In Georgia, the graduation rate has improved steadily throughout most of the past decade to reach 80.8 percent for the Class of 2010, up from 63.2 percent in 2003, according to the state Department of Education.

Some say that celebrated number is artificially high, and state officials acknowledge that they expect a lower rate for 2011, which will use a calculation designed to be more precise than the current measure.


Starting today, The Augusta Chronicle will examine graduation rates in two of the largest school districts in the region, Richmond and Columbia counties, and look at what both districts are doing to help more students graduate with a standard diploma.

Given the basic premise that students must regularly attend school to graduate, the newspaper also chose to study local high schools' attendance rates.

The Georgia Department of Education provided all school-level graduation and attendance data. The department tracks graduation and absentee levels as part of the annual report card it issues for every school and district in the state.


Through the Class of 2010, Georgia has calculated the graduation rate through the "leaver rate," developed by the National Center for Education Statistics. This defines a graduate as a student who leaves high school with a regular diploma in four years.

Because Georgia has not had a way to individually track students across all four years of high school until recently, the rate has involved an estimate of the percentage of students who entered ninth grade and graduated four years later.

The state reports attendance on its school report cards as the percentage of a school's students who were absent five or fewer days, absent six to 15 days, and absent more than 15 days. The Chronicle is focusing on the percentage of students absent more than 15 days and using the terms "chronically absent" or "chronic absentee rate" to describe that rate.

For the school-level charts, The Chronicle analyzed the data using Microsoft Excel and Microsoft Access programs. The newspaper then submitted the analyzed data to the Richmond and Columbia county school systems, and both verified that the figures were consistent with the numbers they had each provided the state.

-- Jason Wermers, staff writer

Online resources

- Study charts showing the chronic absentee and graduation rates for every comprehensive public high school in Richmond and Columbia counties at

- Read previous stories on Georgia public schools at

- Read Education Week's 2010 Diploma Counts report at

- Study Georgia report cards at">style="bold"> . Click on the drop-down menu under "Data Reporting" at the top of the page and select "Report Card." Choose the state, district or public school to study a number of indicators.

Absentee and graduation rates in Richmond, Columbia counties

A look at the gradation and chronically absent rates for 2006-2010 in Richmond and Columbia counties. The chronically absent rate reflects students absent more than 15 days.

Academy of Richmond County79.328.56925.365.427.265.120.360.725.6
Cross Creek79.825.97525.369.232.260.827.176.723.9
Davidson Magnet School1003.51002.61002.71002.898.91.1
Glenn Hills78.527.867.335.859.934.877.521.174.717.6
Johnson Magnet1003.91004.41006.698.88.61004.4
Lucy C. Laney62.938.756.64430.928.145.726.337.339.7
T.W. Josey72.239.463.333.846.240.657.83867.338.4

Source: Georgia Department of Education

Graduation Rates

GRADUATION RATE IN RICHMOND COUNTY in 2010, up from 59.4 percent in 2003

77.5%: GRADUATION RATE at Cross Creek in 2010, the best among Richmond County's comprehensive high schools

: CHRONIC ABSENTEE RATE at Cross Creek in 2010, lowest among Richmond County's comprehensive high schools

84.7%: GRADUATION RATE IN COLUMBIA COUNTY in 2010, up from 71.8 percent in 2003

90%: GRADUATION RATE at Greenbrier in 2010, the highest in Columbia County

9.8%: CHRONIC ABSENTEE RATE at Greenbrier in 2010, the lowest in Columbia County

Source: Georgia Department of Education

Graduates chart for Academy of Richmond County, 2006-2010
Graduates chart for Butler High School, 2006-2010
Graduates chart for Cross Creek High School, 2006-2010
Graduates chart for Davidson Fine Arts, 2006-2010
Graduates chart for Evans High School, 2006-2010
Graduates chart for Glenn Hills High School, 2006-2010
Graduates chart for Greenbrier High School, 2006-2010
Graduates chart for Harlem High School, 2006-2010
Graduates chart for Hephzibah High School, 2006-2010
Graduates chart for A.R. Johnson Magnet, 2006-2010
Graduates chart for Josey High School, 2006-2010
Graduates chart for Lakeside High School, 2006-2010
Graduates chart for Laney High School, 2006-2010
Graduates chart for Westside High School, 2006-2010


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