Primus Weaver thought he could make it without one when he left Hephzibah High school in 1992. But the military turned him down because he didn't have it, and employer after employer also said he needed it.
"There are some things in life that I want to do and I have to have my high school diploma to do them," Mr. Weaver said. "But most of all, if I have kids in the future, I want to show it to them and say `even though I quit school, I went back and got my diploma."'
Mr. Weaver, 27, is one of 267 students attending the first session of the Richmond County school system's evening school. And with more and more people finding it tougher to get decent jobs without a high school diploma, the need for the facility has grown.
"There was a time when about 92 percent of colleges in the U.S. would take the GED, now we're getting colleges that say you've got to have a high school diploma," said LeJeune Hickson, director of the evening school.
"In addition to that, a lot of jobs that used to take the GED, no longer accept it. Many people who have the GED will come back for the high school diploma."
Cheryl Willis, a counselor at the evening school, added: "Many have attempted the work force and find without a diploma, they hit a dead end. They realize there is a difference between a high school diploma and a GED."
Officials expect enrollment at the school to reach 800 by January.
Mr. Weaver quit school at age 20 because he didn't get along with school officials but most students who drop out of Richmond County schools are much younger.
Since 1994, 17- and 16-year-olds and ninth-graders have made up the highest number of dropouts in the county.
School officials are still tallying the 1998-99 report, but during 1997-1998, 597 students were counted as dropouts. Seventeen-year-olds made up 161 of those students, 119 were 16-year-olds, 264 were freshmen and 120 sophomores. There were a total of 37,500 students enrolled in county schools.
During the 1996-97 school year, there were 1,056 dropouts, including 291 16-year-olds, 254 17-year-olds and 491 freshmen. Total enrollment was 35,962.
The dropout numbers reported to the state are much higher. Richmond County officials say its because the state counts dropouts as anyone who does not finish high school within four years.
Dropout reports from the school system come from end-of-the-year reports from individual schools, officials said.
Richmond County's overall dropout rate fluctuates. In 1988 there were 768 dropouts; 1989, 767; 1991, 650 and in 1994 -- the year the evening school started -- 688 dropouts.
"One of the reasons we started the evening school was to increase the graduate rate and decrease the dropout rate," Dr. Hickson said.
"We started with about 87 students, and each year it grows, so I think we're really serving a need," Dr. Hickson said. "We have people calling every year asking `what will it take for me to finish high school?"'
The evening school, held in the vocational wing of T.W. Josey High school, offers classes to anyone in or out of the county who has dropped out of school or is in high school but need additional credits to pass.
"We have several different categories of students," Dr. Hickson said. "We have students who have dropped out and want to return to get the high school diploma in lieu of the General Equivalency Diploma. We have some people who, for some reason or another, left high school with maybe a credit or credit and a half short and we have students who are involved in the welfare to work program."
Students enrolled in the evening school pay $100 or $115, depending on where they live. But the cost is free to anyone under 22 who is not enrolled in school.
Tim Casler, 19, is among a group of students attending the evening school because they missed too many days to receive a diploma.
He moved to Augusta from Kentucky two months ago and inquired about enrolling in high school.
"I only need 1 1/2 credits to get my diploma," Mr. Casler said. "They said if I enrolled in high school, I would have to take a full load."
Classes at evening school are the same as any other high school in Richmond County, but students can only receive 4 1/2 credits per year. In high school they can get 6 credits.
When students come to evening school, no matter what age, the school tries to follow the curriculum that the student was under during his or her freshmen year, Dr. Hickson said.
Students who successfully complete the course work at evening school receive a diploma from the school they are currently attending or, if they are not in school, one that says T.W. Josey High School.
Dr. Hickson said her oldest graduate was 58 but her average student is 19.
Mr. Weaver said he would do things differently if he were 19 again.
"The teachers and counselors here are very helpful," said Mr. Weaver, who plans to attend technical school when he gets his diploma and eventually become a mechanic or welder. "But I would tell anyone who is thinking about quitting high school that it's not worth it. They can get it (the diploma) for free now and you can't make it in the world without it."
Classes at Richmond County's evening school are offered from 4 to 6:30 p.m. and 6:45 to 9:15 p.m.
If the student currently attends school in Richmond County, the cost is $100 per course. If he attends a school outside of the county, $115.
If the person is not in school and has not reached the age of 22, there is no cost. If he is over 22 and lives in the county, the cost is $100; $115 if he lives outside the county.
Child Care is offered at 50 cents per day.For information on enrolling call, 731-8805
REACHFaith Johnson at (706) 823-3765.
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