But dropouts aren't born overnight. They begin as truants, schoolchildren who develop the habit of skipping school and progressively get worse, according to a study by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation called truancy the greatest predictor of dropping out of school.
"Kids just don't wake up one morning and say, 'Gosh, I don't think I'm going to school anymore,' " said Carol Rountree, Richmond County's director of guidance, testing and research. "If we allow them to become disconnected early on, we're going to have a hard time building a meaningful relationship for them that continues through 12 years."
Getting children to school, however, is a significant stumbling block for Richmond County.
There's a clichÃ in education that a teacher can't teach children who aren't in class. Increasingly, pupils are skipping so much school that the juvenile justice system must intervene.
This get-tough approach, however, appears broken, failing to adequately address the truancy problem.
If the system worked as it should, pupils with five unexcused absences would be sent to Juvenile Court, the only court responsible for rehabilitating offenders. The court would then be able to identify the barriers preventing the child from going to school and provide resources to remove or overcome those barriers.
Most of the time, that is not happening. Truants usually don't even make it to court.
For starters, schools don't always know where pupils live. Some parents ignore the summons to appear in court. And the courts are limited in what they can do.
Neither the state nor the school system maintains records of the effectiveness of truancy hearings. To get an idea of the problem, The Augusta Chronicle asked permission in December to observe truancy hearings in Richmond County Juvenile Court.
Over the next few months, The Chronicle witnessed 93 hearings, which are usually closed to the public. They offered a glimpse into the issue.
"I don't like school," a sixth-grader at Morgan Road Middle School said during a March hearing after 25 unexcused absences.
His father said the 12-year-old stays out until 11 each night, sometimes not returning home until 3 a.m.
The same day in court, pupils claimed asthma, hypothyroidism and stomach ulcers kept them from school.
Such excuses no longer surprise Richmond County Juvenile Court Judge Willie Saunders, who presides over truancy hearings.
"Quite frankly, we're seeing a heck of a lot more truancy cases," he said.
In 2005-06, 1,001 pupils were referred to court. A year later, that increased to 1,065, and this past year the number rose to 1,162.
Part of the problem is that society is more accepting of truancy, Judge Saunders said. No longer do children skip school and hide.
"Nothing burns my chaps more than to be here at 11 or 12 o'clock, go to lunch and see some kid riding his bike," he said. "I just can't wrap my mind around it."
A trip to truancy court is enough to set some pupils on the right path, but others are unfazed, such as the child summoned in March for the second time in three months.
Judge Saunders, who has become adept at suspecting drug use, ordered an immediate drug test for the Hephzibah Middle School pupil
The test came back positive for marijuana and cocaine.
"Mom, we're going to try to help him, but right now he's teetering on the path of destruction," the judge said from the bench shortly after ordering that her son be detained for a psychological evaluation. Juveniles who are detained are locked up at the Regional Youth Detention Center for a few days.
Often a symptom
Truancy is usually the sign of a larger problem, Judge Saunders said, emphasizing the need to address the root cause.
One seventh-grader who appeared before him cut class for two months. He was assigned to the alternative school by a school tribunal but couldn't get a ride there. Buses are provided only for special-education pupils at the alternative school.
His mother leaves early in the morning to make it to the fast-food restaurant where she works. As a single mother, she depends on the job, she told Judge Saunders, explaining why she was unable to supervise him and ensure he got to school.
Most juveniles who appear in truancy court are accompanied by a single parent or a grandparent, Judge Saunders said. It's rare for both parents to be involved in the child's life.
For instance, a 12-year-old appeared in his courtroom after missing 26 days of school, 12 of which were unexcused. His guardian, a distraught grandmother, said she didn't know where her grandson's father was and that his mother is incarcerated.
Judge Saunders said there is also a direct correlation between truancy and crime.
In the most public recent example of truancy, Coreon Andreiko Jackson, the 12-year-old sentenced to 81/2 years in a juvenile justice facility for killing a man, hadn't been to school most of the 2007-08 year. He was due in court for skipping school March 24, the same day he had a detention hearing on the murder charge.
Sheriff Ronnie Strength wasn't surprised Coreon hadn't been to school. Only a small fraction of juveniles pose problems for his deputies, but it's getting worse.
Truancy, one of these problems, is becoming more prevalent, but it's out of his hands, Sheriff Strength said.
"The thing about it is we don't have the time or the manpower to stop truancy," he said.
He said his job would be easier if juveniles were in schools rather than out in the streets.
A broken system
Unlike other courts, the goal of juvenile court is to rehabilitate offenders and address the root of their problems, but most of the Richmond County children in need of this help never made it to court while The Chronicle observed truancy hearings.
Sometimes the Richmond County Juvenile Court and the school system have conflicts. Last fall, for example, truancy hearings were suspended for a few weeks because school officials refused to turn over student records at the court's request.
Judge Saunders maintained he needed grades and complete attendance and discipline records to better guide his actions on the bench. School officials said there were problems with such compliance.
This led the judge to begin subpoenaing principals, requiring that they show up to court in person with the student records.
Richmond County Superintendent Dana Bedden said it's not easy coordinating the efforts of two large agencies, but he is satisfied with the cooperation between the school system and the court system since then.
Even when cooperating, there are delays. The process can drag on so long that pupils collect several more absences before getting to court.
Linda Heggs, the head of the school social worker program, said during a public meeting that the sluggish system of filing court petitions can lead to a two-month delay. During that time, absences continue to mount.
Perhaps the most prevalent hindrance to the process is the problem with children's addresses.
It's common that truant pupils don't make it to court because the addresses on file with the school system are inaccurate and no one knows where they live.
"Time after time after time again, we have these situations where the kid's definitely truant, but the addresses aren't any good," Judge Saunders said, wondering whether the addresses are intentionally incorrect so children can attend school out of zone. "It causes a huge problem when we try to conduct business, such as truancy. Heaven forbid that something bad happens with the child and you need to contact a family member."
Deputy Superintendent James Thompson, who has been with the school system for 32 years, said accurate addresses have always been a problem and remain one of the biggest issues.
"It's difficult to find parents, and it's difficult to get correct addresses on students, because the parents won't tell you the correct address. The students won't tell you the correct address," he said. "We only have the address we have on record, and if that's not correct, the parents have to tell us when they move."
Even when addresses are correct, some families just don't show up to court. No longer are there truancy officers to round up children who skip. Instead, school social workers use their limited time and resources to track down truants, complete the lengthy paperwork for court hearings and address the underlying problems tied to missing school.
"Our social workers try to deal with truancy at the same time they are trying to provide the typical services a social worker would do," Dr. Bedden said.
Such efforts are important because pupils who skip school put more than themselves at risk. One child's excessive absences prevented Tutt Middle School from making adequate yearly progress under No Child Left Behind two years ago. This despite the school producing higher test scores than many schools that did make AYP.
Principal Debbie Alexander reviews weekly printouts, looking for excessive absences, and Anthony Young, the school's graduation coach, meets twice a week with the pupils most at risk.
"If we can save them now, then hopefully they won't drop out of high school," Dr. Alexander said. "This is where you can catch them."
Sometimes that means Mr. Young, who is also a wide receiver for the Augusta Colts arena football team, makes home visits to encourage children to attend school.
"That's the biggest thing with a kid is you need an adult with time to listen," he said. "Truly, a lot of them don't. A lot of the time, it's not the parents' fault, because they're working so much trying to make ends meet."
Children cry in his office, and mothers call him asking him to be a father figure, Mr. Young said.
Relationships are important, and Tutt tries to establish a personal relationship with each pupil, Dr. Alexander said. If children don't feel missed, they're less likely to make an effort to go to class.
An evolving process
Since his January 2007 appointment to the bench, Judge Saunders has adapted his tactics for dealing with truants.
Rather than taking what is given to him, he has become aggressive in dealing with them and their families. Earlier in the school year, he would quickly skip over cases in which families did not appear in court, but later he began requesting a deputy drive by the family's house.
If the family still refuses to show up, Judge Saunders issues a bench warrant for the parents' arrest. Throughout the year, he estimated he issued 20-30 bench warrants.
"If it's not important to the parents, it's not going to be important to the child," he said.