Richmond County’s 2013 graduation rate fell 1 percentage point from last year to 58 percent, well below the state average, but Superintendent Frank Roberson said that does not necessarily mean the district is losing ground toward its goals.
Roberson said that when a school system, such as Richmond County, is in need of drastic improvements, educators must look for incremental changes over time. The results are still a gain over the district’s 55 percent graduation rate from 2011. He said the drop is “not statistically significant” because there were 71 fewer seniors in 2013 than in 2012.
“We’re moving at a much slower rate than we’d like, a tortoiselike rate,” Roberson said Wednesday. “But we are improving … This is not wishful thinking, though. I say it can be done, because it can be done.”
According to 2013 graduation rates released Wednesday by the state Department of Education, both Richmond and Columbia counties remained relatively stagnant. Richmond County had the 1 percentage point drop from last year, while Columbia County’s graduation rate increased by 2 percentage points to 76 percent, but that is the same rate the district had in 2011.
Columbia County remains above the state average of 71.5 percent.
This was the third year all states have used a new, more rigorous formula to calculate graduation rates so data can be compared accurately across the country. The new method accounts only for students who graduated within four years after entering high school as freshmen.
The previous method used in Georgia looked at the percentage of seniors who graduated at the end of a year, which some say inflated numbers by counting those who took longer than four years to graduate.
Cross Creek High School’s graduation rate increased 7 points to 71 percent, making it the most improved and highest-rated in Richmond County apart from the two magnet schools, which regularly graduate 100 percent of their students.
Cross Creek Principal Jason Moore said the improvement has come from various methods the school uses to keep students on track and focused on graduation. All seniors attend a “commitment to graduate” ceremony at the beginning of the school year and wear green bracelets to remind them of their goal.
Teachers stay after school and work on Saturdays to tutor students who need help preparing for End of Course Tests or classwork.
Graduation coach ShaRon Dukes said students passing all their classes after first semester are given a certificate and candy. The staff places faux diplomas on the walls for seniors who are on track for graduation to inspire those falling behind to catch up.
Dukes said the main factor contributing to the success is that most students are involved in a sport, club or after-school activity, which makes school more fun and keeps them motivated.
“We try to reach all the students because when you’re not involved, you don’t have that motivation and enthusiasm to get better,” said Dukes, a former admissions recruiter for Georgia Regents University. “Athletes say, ‘If I want to play in the game, I got to get my act together,’ but if I’m not an athlete or in the band or ROTC, it’s hard to stay motivated.”
Roberson acknowledged that the student engagement piece might be missing from other schools.
Glenn Hills High School’s graduation rate dropped 15 percentage points to 42 percent, and only 38 percent of Butler High School’s students graduated in 2013, down from 47 percent in 2012 and 2011.
Glenn Hills Principal Charles Givens did not return a call and e-mail requesting a comment, and Butler Principal Greg Thompson declined to comment, stating that he wanted to review data with his leadership team.
Roberson said that those schools will need to help students take more ownership of their education and that their staffs must ensure the instruction is supporting the curriculum.
For the district as a whole, Roberson said he and his staff are focusing on improving school environments and getting parents more engaged in the process. This year, Roberson and his cabinet reached out to church leaders to help families become more active in their children’s education.
“We’re looking at areas where we need to show improvement, and we have to do it as consistently as possible,” he said. “There are no excuses.”