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Grad-coach jobs saved amid budget cuts

Photo by Johnny Jackson 
High school graduation coaches in Henry County meet periodically to discuss school-related issues and their roles as academic supporters for students at their individual schools.

Photo by Johnny Jackson High school graduation coaches in Henry County meet periodically to discuss school-related issues and their roles as academic supporters for students at their individual schools.

By Johnny Jackson

jjackson@henryherald.com

The jobs of graduation coaches are safe.

Once believed by teachers and administrators to be the targets of budget cuts by the Henry County Board of Education, graduation coaches will retain their positions for the 2010-11 school year, according to Anna Arnold, coordinator of Henry County's Family Resource and Graduation Coach Program.

"There is absolutely no way we can achieve 100 percent graduation rates, if these kids don't have that help," Arnold said. "I feel very strongly that if these positions were gone, our [80 percent] graduation rate would suffer."

Arnold said news of the graduation-coach positions remaining in tact has been warmly received by teachers and administrators in Henry County.

"It's really great news," added Bert Brantley, spokesman for Gov. Sonny Perdue.

Perdue spearheaded the state-wide graduation-coach initiative in 2006, as a way to provide, and fund, additional support to ensure that students graduate on time. Brantley said the state program, which began with high school graduation coaches, added middle school graduation coaches in 2007.

However, local school boards were allowed the option of discontinuing the program in 2009, as a way to fill funding gaps caused by economic hardships and declining state and local revenues.

Henry's school board has decided to keep its positions in tact.

"I think what you're seeing, even during these extraordinarily hard times, a lot of school systems are seeing their worth," said Brantley. "What you're seeing is them being very successful. We've seen many school systems across the state keep their graduation coaches."

The fate of Henry County's graduation-coach assistants, on the other hand, is not so rosy. The assistants, who are only used at the high school level, will be reassigned to other duties at their schools, as paraprofessionals, according to Henry County school officials.

"I love my job. It's the best job I've ever had," said Donna Wilson, a graduation coach assistant at Ola High, whose sentiments echoed those of many assistants who will find their current positions dissolved next school year.

Wilson said her job involves duties which cannot easily be discarded. She said her duties as an assistant include, but are not limited to, helping coordinate her school's mentoring, parental involvement, and second-chance, credit-recovery programs.

The credit-recovery programs have played a hefty part in the success of roughly a third of Henry County's graduating seniors, said Ola High Graduation Coach Phyllis Pendergrass. Pendergrass said the programs were designed to allow students opportunities to make up academic work during the school day, and have guided many graduating seniors at her school to graduate on time. Of last year's 348 graduates at Ola High, 92 of them may not have graduated without the school's credit-recovery programs, she added.

Henry County has been implementing its own version of the state's 2006 graduation-coach initiative since 1990, when it evolved from a pilot, ninth-grade coordinators program at Stockbridge High School. The coordinators, now high school graduation coaches, were certified teachers given the task of guiding and supporting students along the path to high school graduation.

Hampton Middle School Principal Carolyn Flemister-Bell was a ninth-grade coordinator at Stockbridge High, prior to the implementation of the state-wide graduation-coach program. The job's duties, then, are similar to responsibilities now in the program.

Flemister-Bell said the position still requires persistent involvement in students' well-being, academically and socially, getting students involved early in school-related activities that balance with their academic and home lives.

"Our job was to make sure the students transitioned easier from the middle school to the high school, and to make sure they stayed on top of things academically," she said. "It's a big transition. The freshman year is a crucial year for students, because the next year or two, they'll have the option of dropping out."

Flemister-Bell acknowledged that much of her job as a ninth-grade coordinator was to offer assistance to students in how to be more productive in the classroom. "At the school's learning center, students were required to complete assignments," she said. "It was important for them to pass their classes, and you can't pass class, if you're not doing work."

Union Grove High Graduation Coach Dawn Jordan described the role of graduation coaches as being like those of athletic coaches, who aggressively help prepare and motivate their athletes for competition. "Missing a practice impacts the game," Jordan said.

Not being prepared and able to pass class can have devastating affects on a student's future, particularly for freshmen, added Anna Arnold, coordinator of Henry's graduation-coach program.

"If successful in the ninth grade, statistics demonstrate that the student has a 91 percent chance of graduating high school," Arnold said. "If they fail even one class, their chance of graduating drops to 54 percent."