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.' "
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.
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."