Laney's graduation rate surges in 2009

Richmond County Superintendent Dana Bedden called it one of the most embarrassing statistics -- 31 percent.

The 31 percent graduation rate for the Laney High School Class of 2008 was the lowest of any traditional public school in Georgia.

But that was last year.

Laney, a small inner-city high school steeped in history, saw its graduation rate surge 25 points, and most of the Class of 2009 completed school with a diploma.

"I think that's huge," Dr. Bedden said. "We're absolutely ecstatic about it."

Hawthorne Welcher, who retired as Laney's principal last month, called the school's progress "significant, quite significant."

"I'm pleased with the young people," Dr. Welcher said. "We accepted that challenge that was put before us."

He attributed Laney's success to coordinated efforts on multiple fronts, including an after-school program, credit recovery and consultants such as Frank Roberson, a former Aiken County assistant superintendent.

"This was not a fluke that this happened," Dr. Welcher said. "This happened on purpose."

Staff members were even able to draw former dropouts back to complete their work, he said.

"The young people are more than capable," Dr. Welcher said. "They just need to put their mind to it."

Dr. Roberson, now the superintendent of Marlboro County schools in South Carolina, said dropouts were asked why they left school. They learned that the former students lost interest in class and thought teachers didn't care about them.

"They were confusing that with teachers wanting them to be more successful and holding them to certain standards," he said.

Laney's leadership team met weekly for strategic planning sessions and developed ways to engage students and keep them focused, Dr. Roberson said. One technique was making the material relevant to students -- for example, teaching Shakespeare and literary devices through the use of music popular among high school students.

"I think it's the beginning of a process that is going to show even more impressive results when teachers realize what they did worked," Dr. Roberson said. "There's nothing more rewarding than seeing that level of success among students."

School board member Venus Cain, whose district includes Laney, said she was at a loss for words.

"I think it's awesome. It's cool. It's just awesome. I'm speechless," she said. "A lot of work was put in over there, and it's paying off."

Dr. Bedden said he wants to change the image of the school for the sake of its namesake.

Lucy C. Laney was one of Georgia's "most influential educational leaders," who started the first school in the city for black children.

Reach Greg Gelpi at (706) 828-3851 or greg.gelpi@augustachronicle.com.