It was a happy day Wednesday for the Bartow County and Cartersville school systems.
That was the day that the Georgia Department of Education released the graduation rates for the Class of 2018 and that both school districts found they had the highest rates they'd had since 2012, when the state began using the adjusted cohort calculation, now required by federal law, to align Georgia's graduation-rate calculation with national standards.
The four-year adjusted cohort rate is the number of students who graduate in four years with a regular high school diploma divided by the number of students who form the adjusted cohort for the graduating class.
From the beginning of ninth grade, students who are entering that grade for the first time form a cohort that is subsequently “adjusted” by adding any students who transfer into it during the next three years and subtracting any students who transfer out.
The graduation rate for last year's seniors shows that 91.3 percent of Cartersville students and 87.1 percent of Bartow County students walked across the stage last spring to receive their diplomas.
Both systems exceeded the state graduation rate of 81.6 percent — a 1 percent increase over its 80.6 percent rate in 2017 and also the highest ever under the adjusted cohort calculation — and all four high schools saw increases in their individual rates.
“Four years ago, I realized it was entirely possible for CHS to graduate 90 percent or more of our students," said Cartersville Superintendent Dr. Marc Feuerbach, who was principal of the high school then. "At that time, I felt we could reach this objective within four or five years. It is exciting to surpass that goal and even more thrilling that this means a higher number of our students are completing high school.”
But breaking the 90 percent mark wasn't accomplished just through the school district's efforts, Feuerbach said.
"When a student completes high school, it is a result of the caring attention invested by families, community members and every staff member who has impacted that student throughout their K-12 experience," he said. "We are thrilled to break the 90 percent mark because it is not only a win for Cartersville High School but for the entire community. Greater student success leads to a stronger community."
Principal Shelley Tierce called the achievement "a proud moment for Cartersville High School."
"Breaking the 90 percent mark for graduation cannot be determined by one variable," she said. "This success is a reflection of students who value their education and teachers and staff who are dedicated to not only educating students but motivating them to achieve their goals. We appreciate the family and community support that contributed to Cartersville High School's attainment of the 90 percent graduation goal."
The increased rate for Bartow County's high schools is a "testament to our conscientious system leaders, building leadership teams, teachers and students,” Superintendent Dr. Phillip Page said.
"It’s impressive that every high school improved their graduation rate and that our overall graduation rate is at an all-time high since the state began using the adjusted cohort calculation now required by federal law, and I’m proud that we’re consistently above the state rate," he said. "The amount of hard work that went into that record-breaking year is impressive, and I’m confident graduation numbers will continue to increase as we work on collaboration and closing instructional gaps for all of our students."
The 2018 rate for Cartersville climbed 2.1 percent from last year's rate of 89.2 percent and was nearly 10 percent above the state rate, while the county system's rate jumped 3.7 percent over its 2017 rate of 83.4 percent and came in at 5.5 percent above the state.
Feuerbach was pleased with the increase over last year.
"We celebrate the 2.1 percent increase, not because of the number itself but because of the message it conveys," he said. "More students are staying the course and completing successfully, which is our continual aim."
A number of factors contributed to the increased rate, which has been steadily climbing since 2011 except for two years of slight decreases.
"We are employing diligent recordkeeping to ensure our students who move out of the district are counted as transfer students instead of non-completers," Feuerbach said. "Online credit-recovery options allow students another avenue to successfully earn credits. Flexible Academic Block or FAB Wednesday program gives students the opportunity to participate in a number of support activities, including mandatory and optional tutoring, enrichment activities, researching in the media center, working on assignments in computer labs, completing makeup work, preparing for the SAT and ACT and occasionally hearing guest lecturers. [And] we offer individualized student and parent meetings in the spring to ensure students are on target academically and that students' course schedules for the upcoming school year are tailored to meet the requirements needed for students to graduate."
As for surpassing the state rate by almost 10 percent, the superintendent said it's "difficult to judge the successes or challenges of other communities" without understanding the various circumstances that exist across Georgia.
"Our primary objective is to focus on our community and to tailor our educational experience to meet its needs," he said. "We are always looking for opportunities to enhance our students' experience, and we are excited when those pursuits prove to be successful."
In Bartow County, one high school broke the 90 percent plane while the other two are steadily heading toward it.
Adairsville High achieved the largest increase of the three, rising 7.2 percent from 84 percent last year to 91.2 percent this year.
"It's a culmination of four years of effort by our entire staff," Principal Bruce Mulkey said. "I'm very proud that they're getting the recognition they deserve because of that. I'm also proud for the Class of 2018. I sent them a Remind message [Wednesday] morning to congratulate them on having the highest graduation rate of any AHS graduating class and for raising the bar for future classes. It was pretty neat to get some of their replies."
Mulkey added the school's graduation rate was 66 percent in 2013 "so we're very excited about the progress we've made over the last five years."
The principal credits the climbing numbers to an increase in course options and pathways for students and to a dedicated teaching and counseling staff.
"First, the system has done a really good job at providing more options for students who may not be interested in a traditional high school experience," he said. "We continue to add programs at the [Bartow County] College and Career Academy that expose these students to options they've not had in the past, and our partnership with [Mountain Education Charter High School] allows students who are not able to attend school from 8 [a.m.] to 4 [p.m.] the opportunity to earn a diploma."
Mulkey said the guidance department also "made changes in our protocols and procedures for monitoring students' progress towards graduation."
"They can tell you what any senior in our building needs to graduate without looking at their graduation plan," he said. "If a student leaves AHS, they can tell you exactly where they went because they monitor that closely as well. Lastly, they monitor student attendance, which has been a major initiative for us over the last several years."
The final and "most important" reason for the increase is the "dedication and commitment of our teachers in the classroom," the principal said.
"Our staff made a commitment six years ago that our graduation rate was going to improve," he said. "Every teacher bought into the processes we established, and I've watched them pour their hearts and souls into our students to make it happen. The strength of our building has always been our teachers' ability to build relationships with students. They know their students on a personal level and are truly invested in them. They work 60 hours a week and will gladly come in on a Saturday if that's what our students need. I can't tell you how proud I am and how fortunate I am to work with them every day."
Page said he was "even more impressed" by Adairsville’s graduation rate than he was with the overall rate.
"I commend the school for their commitment to engage all children in relevant learning activities, changing their protocols and procedures for monitoring students’ progress toward graduation and improving student attendance," he said. "The investment into these practices is evident, and now we’re celebrating with them as they set a new standard in Bartow County."
Woodland High rebounded from a 3.4 percent drop last year to a 3.4 percent increase this year, climbing from 79.4 percent in 2017 to 82.8 percent in 2018.
"We are definitely excited that we are back on an upward trend while also being above the state average," Principal Dr. Wes Dickey said. "Last year was our second year of implementing our Success initiatives in the building while we also started the rolling out of our ROAR — positive behavior supports — program. This has helped create the beginning foundation whereby students want to come to school daily at Woodland because of the relationships created and the engaging and relevant learning experiences."
Improved attendance also contributed to the increase in graduates, Dickey said.
"First off, we looked hard at our attendance data when conducting our school improvement planning," he said. "We had the worst attendance rate of the BCSS high schools. Our SIP team then created and implemented multiple action steps last year to help motivate and encourage our students to come to school every day. As a result, our attendance data improved dramatically last school year."
Cass High's graduation rate rose slightly this year — 0.6 percent — to 88.7 percent from 88.1 percent in 2017.
“We are proud to see Cass High consistently among the top-performing schools in this category,” Principal Stephen Revard said. “It truly demonstrates the commitment of our teachers, staff and parents towards the overall success of our students. Also, it is a testament to the hard work that is done in the classroom by our students as they prepare for a productive life after high school.”
Statewide, graduation rates have grown steadily since Georgia began using the adjusted cohort calculation, starting at 69.7 percent in 2012 and climbing to 81.6 percent this year, according to a DOE press release.
"Georgia’s graduation rate continues to rise because our public school students have access to more opportunities than ever before,” State School Superintendent Richard Woods said in the release. “From career, technical and agricultural education to dual enrollment to the fine arts, there is an unprecedented emphasis on supporting the whole child and making sure every single student understands the relevance of what they’re learning. I’m confident we’ll continue to see these gains as long as we’re still expanding opportunities that keep students invested in their education.”