The Westside High School senior will graduate after starting at the school five years ago, and two years after her grandmother died of ovarian cancer. She was held back her freshman year, but she repeated the grade and got help from Westside teachers to achieve her goal.
"I owed this to my grandma. She took me to Sylvan Learning Center. She tried to get me focused," said Whitney, 18. "I have to do this for her even if she didn't live to see it happen."
She's one of 1,615 Richmond County students who will graduate this week. The county will graduate four more graduates than last year; 132 more Columbia County students graduated Saturday compared with last year.
School officials from both systems say the increases -- slight or moderate -- are great strides. Credit recovery, online course options and other alternative forms of education have added some flexibility for students this year to help them meet diploma requirements.
The options give more students who would have remained dropouts a chance to receive a diploma, said Carol Rountree, Richmond County schools' director of student services. She expects 20 to 40 students to be added to the roster of graduates after summer school and Georgia High School Graduation Test retakes this summer.
Though evening and alternative schools had been available to students, nontraditional programs for students of varying needs were developed this school year to increase the number of graduates.
Richmond County saw about a 6 percentage point increase in its graduation rate last school year compared with 2008, with a 70.4 percent graduation rate. Columbia County saw less than a 1 point increase between 2008 and 2009, with an 83 percent graduation rate last year.
It will be months before graduation rates are available for this year, but the increase in graduation class sizes indicates graduation rates will rise and dropout rates are decreasing.
"We feel positive about the numbers," Rountree said. "We're seeing alternative learning have an impact on student achievement. We're able to recapture students that dropped out because we have more options for them."
Rosalie Carraway, the director of student learning in Columbia County, said several initiatives contributed to the increase in graduates this year. The school system conducts one-on-one meetings with those considering dropping out. They also offer credit recovery -- an opportunity to retake failed courses -- and online courses, Carraway said.
"I believe there are a number of things in place -- graduation coaches, dedicated teachers and innovative administrators," she said.
Two programs introduced last year, Alternative Learning Options and Youth Challenge Academy, helped 25 students who were dropouts this time last year graduate this year, said Winnette Bradley, Richmond County's director of alternative education programs. The academy offers education and residential services to students at Fort Gordon. The learning options program allows students to recover credits through online courses.
Bradley said resources remain a stumbling block for the school system.
"It's the financial challenges in being able to place academic, social and technological resources in classes for students," she said. "It's also the human resources. We've had to cut teachers, so that becomes a challenge in operating the programs."
In spite of those challenges, the school system will have fewer students retaking tests this summer and enrolled in summer school, Bradley said.
Rountree said she hopes the additional learning alternatives will translate into increases in graduation rates and the number of dropouts returning to receive a diploma.
"We feel very proud that there's a larger group of students who left school that are coming back," she said. "It's not just one program that works well, so we wanted to introduce more nontraditional programs. It's making an impact."