AIKEN - She could barely utter the word archaeology as a tot, but Debbie Williams always told her dad she would become the female version of Indiana Jones.
Sunny days found her endlessly digging in her wooden sandbox searching for ancient remains to no avail. And there were the times she'd burst into the kitchen holding a dog bone, hoping it would be more. Archaeology seemed the obvious career choice until recently.
Three years ago, Debbie's father, Wayne, once an ironworker, was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, named for the Yankees' first baseman best known for his amazing playing streak of 2,130 games.
As quickly as Mr. Williams was diagnosed, Debbie's second career choice became her first -- physical therapy.
"The muscles in his arms have broken down, and his legs are getting weaker by the day. I just want to help my dad and others like him," said Debbie, just three weeks shy of graduating from South Aiken High School and completing an occupational therapy course from the Aiken County Career Center.
Debbie is one of about 1,300 students who will receive diplomas in the coming weeks. Graduation ceremonies in Aiken County will be June 3-5.
In the last decade, graduation rates for Aiken County have risen -- a trend that mirrors national and state statistics.
Nationally, the dropout rate is holding at about 5 percent. This means 500,000 young people are still shortchanging their lives. Likewise, Aiken County's rate fell in 1997 to its lowest ever, 4.4 percent, which means one of every 22 students leaves high school with no diploma.
District 51 in Greenwood County reported the highest dropout rates in 1996-97 with 7 percent. Barnwell and Sumter were tied for the lowest with 0.3 percent.
But administrators claim that most dropouts return for their General Equivalency Diploma test within two years of leaving high school.
Historically, the GED was established as a means of providing a high school credential to World War II veterans who were uprooted from the learning zone to the battle zone. Since then, the test has been viewed as a second-chance program for people who failed to graduate from high school.
Job growth, poverty and teen-age pregnancies influenced Aiken County's dropout numbers, said Frank Roberson, associate superintendent for instructional services.
"Our graduates will represent the effective work of our teachers and will provide the documentation that the work of our teachers has been successful," Dr. Roberson said.
Aiken High School: June 4 at 8 p.m. in the gymnasium
South Aiken High School: June 4 at 6 p.m. in the gymnasium
North Augusta High School: June 5 at 8 p.m. in the gymnasium
Midland Valley High School: June 5 at 8 p.m. in the gymnasium
Ridge Spring-Monetta High School: June 5 at 8 p.m. in the gymnasium
Wagener-Salley High School: June 5 at 6 p.m. in the auditorium
Silver-Bluff High School: June 4 at 8 p.m. in the gymnasium
Aiken County Career Center: June 3 at 7 p.m. at Aiken Technical College
Adult Education: June 11 at 8 p.m. in the Midland Valley High School gymnasium