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Graduation push starts freshman year

By Greg Gelpi

Efforts to boost high school graduation rates have local school officials targeting students long before graduation time.

Both Clayton and Henry counties' school systems have established support systems for ninth grade students in the form of transition programs in hopes of cementing patterns of success that will translate into higher graduation rates four years down the road.

Ninth grade is a pivotal year for students, Phyllis Hadden, Henry County's director of Student Services, said.

"The place you mainly lose students is ninth grade," Hadden said, calling ninth grade "challenging." "If they can catch a sense of support in the ninth grade then they are more likely to be successful."

Stockbridge High School began the transition program initiative about 10 years ago, she said, and the program has since gone system-wide and school officials have presented the transition program around the country.

The transition program was developed out of a need for support for ninth graders as they enter a new school and the new environment of a high school, which can "sometimes be frightening, upsetting," Hadden said.

"It's a comprehensive program that addresses many components of the students," she said, listing tutoring, counseling and other support as parts of the program, but identified parent communication as a "key element."

Teachers work as teams and collaborate on teaching students in the ninth grade transition program, Hadden said. The collaboration aids communication to parents, which is almost immediate, rather than allowing problems to persist.

The Clayton County school system is phasing in a similar transition program this school year.

Spokeswoman Camille Barbee Olmstead said that success in ninth grade classes, such as algebra, are "indicators" of how successful students will be. The "added layer of security" fosters students into high school and establishes vertical communication, communication between grade levels, as opposed to communication strictly between teachers of the same grade level.

The "school within a school" model will create a nearly independent school with its own teachers and administrators, Executive Director for Teaching and Learning Bill Greene said.

The program consists of five components: Counseling, communication, teacher support, students and pre-high school, an approach of working with students before the get to high school, Greene said. Middle and high school administrators are actually meeting next week to coordinate efforts in assisting in the transition.

"More students fail ninth grade than any other grade in school," he said, adding that students who fail a grade are three times as likely not to graduate.

Charles White, Clayton's coordinator of public affairs and community relations, said that the school system is "encouraging" more of that type of communication "so that there can be a greater cooperation not only across the curriculum, but across the academic lifetime of a student."

Clayton County schools Superintendent Barbara Pulliam had said previously that the transition program is the foundation for increasing high school graduation rates. She explained that the transition program ushers students into the high school setting and establishes a foundation for students to build their high school careers upon.

The program eases students into the "reality" of high school and lessens the "traumatic" experience of entering high school, White said.

To bolster the state's high school graduation rates and boost college enrollment, the state Department of Education recently launched Education Go Get It. Through a multimedia engagement campaign, grassroots outreach programs and partnering, the state is partnering with private corporations and organizations to encourage high school graduation, adding to existing initiatives, such as the transition programs.

Georgia's high school graduation rate was 65.4 percent in the 2003-2004 school year. In Clayton, it was 62.5 percent, and in Henry it was 71.3 percent. The state, as well as both the Henry and Clayton County school systems, have increased graduation rates each of the past three years.

By boosting the high school graduation rate, Education Go Get It also intends to boost college enrollment. About 28 percent of the state's 28 to 24-year-olds are enrolled in college, a number the state hopes to bring to a nation-leading 48 percent by 2020.

Bill Shearer, Henry County's assistant superintendent for operations and improvement, said that it's a constant struggle to meet the needs of every student, but that that is the mission of the school system.

The Henry school system is offering and planning an array of programs to address the needs of a diverse student population to ultimately raise high school graduation rates, Shearer said. Other Henry programs include its Evening Academy and opportunities for students who fail the first semester of a course to repeat the first semester without having to repeat the entire year.

The Henry system is also considering a "more defined" vocational and technical curriculum, he said.