But graduations also highlight what students are leaving behind.
During the 2010- 11 school year, Richmond County schools saw changes in everything from technology and funding to staffing. The Augusta Chronicle examines some of the most significant issues and events that happened this school year.
To many in the community, the selection of Aiken County native Frank Roberson as the district's superintendent in August was nothing short of a saving grace.
Roberson was energetic, compassionate and eager to fix the problems hovering over Richmond County schools.
With the high school graduation rate at 76.2 percent in 2010, he set a goal to raise that rate to 90 percent within the next three years.
He pledged to fix the chronic tardiness of school buses and help struggling schools meet their federal adequate yearly progress targets concerning pass rates on state reading and math tests.
Board members and the community believed in him and were waiting to see what Roberson could do.
Six months after he took office, Roberson's plans were put on hold. He underwent emergency brain surgery Feb. 24 for complications from an abnormal clustering of blood vessels, a condition known as arteriovenous malformation . Since then, his family has released just a few updates on his condition through district spokesman Louis Svehla, leaving the public wondering about his well-being and when he would be able to return to work.
The last update on April 20, attributed to Roberson himself, said he was transferred to Walton Rehabilitation Center and is "experiencing a speedy recovery." Deputy Superintendent James Whitson took over as acting superintendent for the remainder of the school year, but plans for next year are still unclear.
This year, several educators were recognized for their outstanding talents for growing students' minds.
Rollins Elementary School math teacher Linda Fountain was one of 85 educators in the country to be awarded the 2010 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching . Fountain was selected by a national panel after her state recommendation.
Fountain's fourth-graders made the greatest improvement on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests math and science of any Georgia class in 2009. The next year, every child in her classes made gains on their CRCT scores from the previous year.
"I just love what I do, and I'm honored," Fountain said. "When I go to that school, I just like all the attention to be on my students. I'm their biggest fan. I just want them to know they're very capable."
Fountain, along with Terrace Manor Elementary math teacher Tiffani D. Leverett, also earned master certification earlier this month. The distinction, coordinated by the Georgia Professional Standards Commission, certifies educators as master teachers for seven years based on classroom performance, CRCT scores and student growth.
Not all of the attention given to teachers this school year was for their achievements.
-- In February, Collins Elementary School secretary Tiffiny Robinson surrendered to police after allegations she had a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old eighth-grader.
According to a grand jury indictment, Robinson had sex with the boy at his home Jan. 1. On Feb. 12, she picked the boy up from his home and drove him to the Augusta Marriott at the Convention Center on 10th Street, where she booked a room and had sex with him again.
Additional charges were later filed when investigators found she allegedly also brought a 15-year-old girl to a home on Channing Court between Jan. 1 and Feb. 16 "for the purpose of child molestation," according to the indictment.
The situation with the girl is still unclear, although Robinson is not charged with molesting the girl . On March 4, Robinson pleaded not guilty to three counts of enticing a child for indecent purposes, two counts of child molestation and one count of sexual assault against a person in custody. She was released from the Richmond County Jail and granted bond April 20 as she awaits further court action.
-- A Tobacco Road Elementary School teacher was placed on administrative leave in March amid allegations she grabbed a fourth-grader by the neck when the pupil couldn't answer a math problem.
Kayrie Cargill denied placing her hands on the girl's neck when the parent reported the incident to police.
The investigation that followed revealed a litany of offenses Cargill had been accused of during her tenure in Richmond County schools. The offenses ranged from placing pupils in timeout and forgetting they were there to forcing children to stand in the bathroom with the lights off as punishment.
-- Freedom Park Elementary School's former bookkeeper was arrested in November on charges she stole money from the school. An internal audit showed Toya Coleman, 31, stole more than $3,000 before she resigned in June.
In two instances, the audit found, Coleman forged the principal's signature to cash two checks for less than $500 each from school funds.
She also stole more than $3,000 in cash that was raised in a school book fair, according to the audit.
Freedom Park Principal Rita Bradley was demoted to assistant principal at Butler High School after the incident. Superintendent Frank Roberson said in November that he did not suspect wrongdoing by Bradley but said fiscal accountability is a duty of any principal.
Higher Graduation Rates
Richmond County high schools made progress toward Roberson's goal of increasing the on-time graduation rate.
During the past five years, the overall graduation rate in every traditional public high school increased. The number of economically disadvantaged graduates increased from 62.1 percent in 2006 to 74.2 percent in 2010. This occurred even while the number of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch rose to 75 percent over the past five years.
School Improvement Grants
It was a hopeful year for three Richmond County high schools .
Ranked in the lowest 5 percent for student achievement of all Georgia high schools, Glenn Hills, Lucy C. Laney and T.W. Josey received more than $1 million each in federal School Improvement Grants.
The schools are eligible to receive $2 million in additional funds for the next two years if results improve on state tests.
This meant the schools needed to make drastic changes. Glenn Hills and Josey took on the "transformation" model, which included in-classroom training for teachers and more focused instructional time. At Laney, which had the more dramatic "turnaround" model, 50 percent of the staff was replaced and a dropout specialist was hired.
Prekindergarten teachers learned just how much the economy would affect their jobs.
In March, Gov. Nathan Deal announced major funding cuts to the state pre-K program.
Because of a $2 million loss of state funding, local districts had to determine how to compensate for the shortage. Richmond County announced it would eliminate local supplements to pre-K teacher s' salaries and reduce benefit packages - a decrease of $2,100 to $2,900 per teacher.
The Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning also closed nine local pre-K classrooms, including five in private facilities.
As part of Deal's announcement, all new incoming pre-K teachers would have a salary of $30,000 and any current teachers will have their salaries capped at their current rate. Richmond County gave all pre-K teachers the option to transfer into K-5 positions .
At a school board meeting earlier this month, district officials said there were 27 available positions and that 41 of the district's 47 teachers requested to transfer out of pre-K.
The district purchased a student information system that puts everything from grade books to student demographics in one online site.
The $1.8 million Global Scholar Pinnacle Suite allows parents to receive e-mail alerts and text messages and have full access to their child's grades, attendance and progress.
The district's previous system was outdated and scattered. Users needed several login identities and passwords and had to jump from site to site. Now parents and teachers use one login for all of the components.
"To me, that is a major advance," said Cheryl Jones, the executive director for elementary schools, who worked to implement the program. "It's an opportunity for us to move closer to 21st century manner of instruction."
Shortly after Laney High School received a $1 million School Improvement Grant, its principal came under fire for several moves related to the grant's implementation.
Parents and members of Laney's alumni association raised their eyebrows when Principal Tonethia Beasley spent $12,458 on a "team-building" retreat at the Ritz-Carlton on Lake Oconee in July.
Also, when more than 50 percent of the school's teaching staff was replaced in line with the grant's reform model, parents and alumni were outraged at Beasley for not including them in the process. A group of protesters even showed up to a Richmond County Board of Education meeting with signs and posters to protest against the principal.
In November, Superintendent Frank Roberson announced Beasley would move into an interim position for the district administration.
Tonia Mason, the principal of Tubman Education Center, took over as Laney's interim principal, and Tubman's assistant principal, Carolyn Curtis, took over for Mason.