Lucy C. Laney High School has perennially had the lowest graduation rate in Richmond and Columbia counties.
In 2006, when a national study identified it as one of about 1,700 schools deserving of the term "dropout factory," Laney's graduation rate, 37.3 percent, was actually lower than its chronic absentee rate, 39.7 percent.
The school has come a long way since then. While it still has the area's lowest graduation rate -- 62.9 percent for the class of 2010 -- it also is by far the region's most improved.
Vergil Austin-Hall, 18, who is working to make up course credits so he can graduate with his peers in May, acknowledged such changes are unsettling.
"You start to get close to someone, and they take them away," said Austin-Hall, whose daughter turned 3 on Monday. "But you just pray a lot about it and keep going."
Austin-Hall said he got off to a poor start in ninth grade.
"I was doing dumb stuff," he said. "It was a bad year. I wasn't focused at all."
It started to turn around for him last year. He credited his teachers and former Principal Tonethia Beasley with helping him develop a plan to make up lost credits and graduate. He passed all parts of the Georgia High School Graduation Test except science, and he is studying to retake that section.
He takes eight classes during the school day, plus three more courses online using PLATO Learning. He said he planned to start attending Laney's Saturday school, which was scheduled to begin this weekend.
Because of his hard work the past two years, Austin-Hall has a realistic chance of graduating with his peers in May, even though he technically is in grade 11.5, not 12.
His attitude toward school has completely changed.
"I like going to school," he said. "They go the extra mile for us. They don't have to do the stuff they do for us."
Austin-Hall and any other seniors who want to walk across the stage at commencement in May will have to earn the credits they need to receive a standard diploma. That's because interim Principal Tonia Mason instituted a new policy after coming on board in November.
"You have students who will walk across the stage and get their certificate of attendance," she said. "That is sending the wrong message, and I will have nothing to do with that."
Mason is a proud 1982 graduate of Laney. Both of her parents also are Wildcats, as are many of her relatives. She said she uses her experience going through Laney and growing up in the same neighborhood many of today's students live in to show them she knows what they are going through, and that she won't accept excuses for failure.
The teachers and guidance staff have been using that "tough love" approach for years to encourage students who are at risk of dropping out to stay in school and graduate.
"We do have students who have dropped out, and we are able to get them back in," said Gwendolyn Golatt, the school's intervention specialist. "When students see a plan, a vision, they know they can do it. Every now and then, we have one we just cannot get to hold onto that hope, but we do have some success stories." Two students who have been on track to graduate throughout their high school careers are Corinthians "Coco" Brown, 17, a senior and a starting guard and forward on the Wildcats basketball team, and Symeerah Morton, a 17-year-old senior who, among other things, is a member of the National Honor Society and Academic Decathlon. Both say they appreciate all Laney has done for them, including encouraging them to take Advanced Placement courses so they can earn college credit while in high school.
"This school is really changing, and it's changing for the good," said Symeerah, who moved to Augusta from Philadelphia in 2009. "I've been here two years, and I've been through three principals. No principal is better than any other. I respect all that they have done."
Corinthians complimented his teachers; Mason; and Sharon Hill, the school's dropout prevention specialist, who was hired in October as part of the School Improvement Grant.
"If you aren't coming to school, she'll find you," Corinthians said. Mason said Laney is Augusta's best-kept secret.
"I feel for those who are outside Laney," said senior Candace Pittman, 17.