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School systems may decide fate of graduation coach program

By Johnny Jackson

jjackson@henryherald.com

Gov. Sonny Perdue's statewide High School Graduation Coach Program may cease to exist for some school districts.

This fall, local school boards may have a choice in whether they want to continue the program, alter it or discontinue it in order to save money.

In an effort to rein in costs, Perdue is proposing the state redirect funding from the graduation coach program into the state's Quality Basic Education funding formula, which determines the amount of state funds each K-12 school district receives.

The change, proposed in the state's fiscal year 2010 budget, would effectively give local school boards more say in state funding allocations.

"Given the budgetary pressures that we're under, we felt like we should put as much funding as possible into the QBE formula," said Perdue spokesman Bert Brantley. "It gives the school systems the option of funding the programs they see best fit in their schools. It will be up to the school systems."

The statewide graduation coach program receives about $49 million in annual state funding to supply middle and high schools with the specially-trained counselors.

The program was created in 2006 to help increase graduation rates and decrease dropout rates throughout the state. Since the program's inception, the state has reduced its annual dropouts by 4,513 students, more than 19 percent.

"That's 4,500 students who are now on their way to graduating," Brantley said. "The folks that graduation coaches are working with are those who are at-risk of dropping out. Even though we've increased in student enrollment, the number of students in the state who drop out has gone down dramatically."

About 78 percent of 2008 high school seniors identified as at-risk and served by graduation coaches went on to graduate last year, according to Brantley.

"We need to really look at the data and see how the graduation coaches have helped," said Alieka Anderson, chairwoman of the Clayton County Board of Education. "I think the graduation coaches program helps the counselors out and helps keep children on track."

School officials are currently planning their 2010 budgets. They have said they will evaluate the use and value of the graduation coach program, before making a decision on continuing its funding in either middle or high school.

Anderson said budgetary cuts for the Clayton County school system would likely begin at the central office level.

"We need to start at the top," she said. "Classroom instruction would be the last to go."

Clayton anticipates a shortfall of roughly $27 million in state and local funding, while the Henry County School System expects to lose about $10 million in funding.

"I think everybody is feeling the heat from the economy," Anderson said. "We just have to stay focused, because it's about the students. I want magnet or theme schools that focus on particular areas like vocational education. I think, along with the graduation coaches, it will really help our students."

In addition to potential savings of $49 million for local school boards, Perdue proposes that the state provides QBE formula funding for only middle school graduation coaches who serve feeder schools with graduation rates at or below 85 percent.

It means those high schools with graduation rates above 85 percent would only receive state funding for their high school graduation coaches and not their feeder middle school graduation coaches.

The governor also proposes the state reduce funding for graduation coach training, which costs the state about $33,000 annually.

Henry County's middle and high school graduation coaches meet once a month for a day of professional development in which they collaborate on school curriculum, activities, and initiatives.

"In Henry County, we had graduation coaches [called ninth-grade team coordinators] long before the governor created those positions," said Anna Arnold, Henry's Family Resource and Graduation Coach coordinator. "We are aware of the dedication, loyalty and commitment of our graduation coaches."

Colleen White cannot walk too far down the hallways of Kendrick Middle School in Jonesboro without running into a student she works with. She is one among hundreds around the state who undergo extended graduation coach training during the school year and over summer break.

As the school's graduation coach, White has a caseload of 120 students. She meets with as many as seven of them on any given day and works with so-called at-risk students who are struggling in school.

Part of her job is to monitor the behavior, attendance and academic achievement of those students and "bridge the gap" between her students' teachers and their parents.

"You need to have that go-between person for the students to help them with their behavior, their attendance and their academic performance," said White.

She believes in building relationships with her students, by occasionally stopping them in the hall to ask them how they are doing. Sometimes, she drops in on a class to see how her students are doing.

"It's absolutely important because sometimes there is no one there who understands where they are at in life, or where they are going," White said. "I plan on doing this as long as it takes to change at least one student's life. There is still so much work to be done."

Clayton News Daily staff writer Curt Yeomans contributed to this article.