High schools in Richmond and Columbia counties, along with their counterparts across Georgia, have made progress in getting students to graduate in recent years while enduring cuts in revenue and serving an increasingly needy student population.
During the past five years, every traditional public high school in those counties, except one, has seen its overall graduation rate rise. The only one that didn't, Greenbrier High, dropped slightly from 90.1 percent for the Class of 2006 to 90 percent for the Class of 2010.
The number of students in each graduating class who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, whom Georgia considers "economically disadvantaged," rose sharply in Richmond County -- by 75 percent -- during those five years. Statewide, the number increased by 21.5 percent, according to Georgia Department of Education data.
Yet their graduation rates increased as well. Richmond County saw its economically disadvantaged graduation rate rise from 62.1 percent in 2006 to 74.2 percent in 2010; in Georgia, it rose from 61.5 percent to 76 percent.
Students with disabilities -- which can include physical handicaps such as blindness, learning disabilities or severe emotional problems -- consistently have lower graduation rates than their nondisabled peers.
That generalization holds true both in affluent, suburban Columbia County and in poorer, urban Richmond County.
THE GRADUATION RATE for disabled students has risen in Richmond and Columbia counties and statewide. But the gap between disabled and nondisabled students is still wide. For example, for the Class of 2010, nondisabled students had graduation rates of 81.6 percent in Richmond County, 86.2 percent in Columbia County and 84.7 percent in Georgia.
The rates for students with disabilities for the same class: 38.4 percent in Richmond County, 58.8 percent in Columbia County and 44.4 percent in Georgia.
Sandra Carraway, the deputy superintendent of the Columbia County school system, said teaching students with disabilities is a "top priority" for the district and noted the progress that has been made, but she acknowledged there is still work to do.
"You have to take into consideration that students with disabilities have conditions that cause them not to be able to learn at the same rate, or the same extent, as other students," she said. "These are students with a wide spectrum of disabilities, meaning their challenges are greater (than other students) by the nature of their disability."
That doesn't mean, however, that educators write off these students. She said the district recently implemented an "achievement period" in elementary and middle schools. That serves as a block of time for pupils to get help with any subjects they struggle with, as well as enrichment for pupils who have mastered basic concepts. The period will be extended to high schools next year.
IN JANUARY, The Augusta Chronicle began examining the relationship between attendance and graduation rates. In general, as would be expected intuitively, schools with lower chronic absentee rates (defined as more than 15 absences in a school year) had higher graduation rates.
Students with disabilities also fit that pattern. They tend to miss more school, likely because of doctor's appointments or sickness. But some of them may be less motivated to be in school, overwhelmed by the challenges they face.
In fact, in some Richmond County schools, special education students' chronic absentee rates were actually higher than their on-time graduation rates. Laney High School, for example, saw its graduation rate for special needs students rise from 11.5 percent in 2006 to 31.6 percent in 2010. But their chronic absentee rate also rose during the same period, from 27.3 percent to 39.5 percent.
It should be noted the state calculates absentee rates for all grades in a school, while graduation rates are based on the percentage of ninth-graders who graduate with a standard diploma four years later. The number of special education students in a graduating class at Laney has hovered around 20 during the past five years. With that few students, a change of only one or two students graduating or failing to do so can swing the percentage significantly.
Even so, the fact that the special education graduation rate is consistently far below that of nondisabled students at schools, districts and the state highlights the challenges educators face.
A FEDERAL LAW known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires schools to provide a "free appropriate public education" to these students. That can drive up school districts' costs, as they are required to provide services to students with disabilities -- for example, counseling or other mental therapy for students with emotional disorders, and speech language pathology for students whose disabilities affect their ability to speak.
In Georgia, as well as in Richmond and Columbia counties, the largest portion of special education students have specific learning disabilities. An example is dyslexia, which is a reading disorder in which the brain does not properly recognize and process certain symbols, even though the person may otherwise have average or above-average intelligence, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Students with disabilities are each issued an Individualized Education Program, which is developed by a team of educators and professionals along with the parent and student. The program spells out what the student is expected to learn each year and what the school will do to teach the child.
SOME DISABILITIES ARE so profound, educators say, that the student can never be reasonably expected to pass the state-required tests or courses to receive a standard diploma. They say the lower graduation rates across different kinds of schools and different parts of the country is proof.
Laura Kaloi, the public policy director of the National Center for Learning Disabilities, an advocacy group based in New York, said the situation for special education students in Georgia has been getting better, but there is still a long way to go.
Nationally, she said, a reason graduation rates for students with disabilities tends to be far behind that of other students is low expectations. She said less than 1 percent of students have disabilities so profound as to make it impossible for them to graduate with a standard diploma.
"From our perspective, we absolutely think you have to set high expectations," Kaloi said. "You have to remember that students with disabilities are general education students first. Special education is not a place, but a set of support. If those supports are not applied properly in local school districts, but instead those children are shipped off somewhere else, you not helping the child."