The Georgia Department of Education updated its annual Adequate Yearly Progress report on Sept. 28. The report showed an increase in the state's graduation rate to an all-time high.
For the 2006-2007 school year, the graduation rate rose to 72.3 percent - well above the state's AYP goal of 65 percent. Graduation rates along with graduation exam scores count toward a school or system meeting AYP as part of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, which aims to have all students in the country performing at grade level by 2014.
State Superintendent Kathy Cox pointed to the addition of graduation coaches in middle and high schools, the adoption of more rigorous curriculum, changes to career education programs and variety of school options as reasons for the improvement.
"Our graduation rate is continuing to climb and is at its highest level," Cox said in a press release, "but we will not be satisfied until our graduation rate is 100 percent
"As a state, we are focusing on our graduation rate like never before, and I know we will see this number go up dramatically in the coming years."
Newton County students also logged a dramatic increase in the graduation rate from the 2005-2006 school year. In 2006, the county's graduation rate was 66.1 percent. This year it rose one percentage point above the state average to 73.3 percent.
Kathy Reese, NCSS director of 9-12 curriculum and career, technical and agricultural education, agreed with Cox about why the improvement occurred.
"We are thrilled to see the positive results of hard work exhibited by our students, teachers and administrators," Reese said.
She said this year's addition of graduation coaches to the county's middle schools will continue to improve the graduation rates.
"This year, the addition of graduation coaches at all Newton County middle schools will assist in improving graduation rates by providing intervention strategies before students start high school," Reese said. "This is particularly important as eighth graders transition to ninth grade, as statewide, the greatest number of students drop out when they are not successful in ninth grade."
Mark Rachels works as the graduation coach at Clements Middle School. Teachers help him identify students at risk of dropping out by reviewing students' attendance, behavior, self-esteem, motivation and scores on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests students take in the spring.
"A student doesn't decide all of a sudden to drop out," Rachels said. "The thoughts begin as early as fifth, sixth and seventh grades - it then grows like a weed, over time until high school.
"Often the high school coach is too late to prevent it."
Next year elementary school counselors will refer students to Rachels, who also works with high school counselors to aid grade transition.
Rachels' main goal is to help students have a more positive attitude toward school through two graduation teams.
The first team consists of the at-risk students and him self.
"We often compare the academic course to a sporting event, and it is the student's responsibility to do everything possible to be victorious," Rachels said.
The second team consists of teachers, administrators and counselors who meet to discuss specific problems and solutions.
Rachels also employs outside help from the community such as from the National Guard's "You Can School" program and the Boy Scout series "Learning for Life."
Reese said the new graduation requirements, which eliminated the old tiered diplomas and standardized the number of credits a student needs to graduate, could possibly negatively affect graduation rates as they increase the difficulty and number of courses required to graduate.
"However, research on best practices in schools shows that students will most often rise to the expectations set before them," Reese said.
Also, technology such as the NovaNET Credit Recovery software, is assisting students on their way to earning a diploma.
"As we are trained in the many possibilities provided by NovaNET, not only for credit recovery, but for reinforcement of specific skills," Reese said. "We will fine-tune our plans to best meet the needs of our students."
Rachels said the motto his colleagues have chosen for Clements applies to any school dedicated to improving their students' educations.
"The motto we have chosen is 'never, never, never, never give up,'" Rachels said. "If we all work together, we will succeed."