Both school systems near or over 90% graduation rate

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Graduates in the Class of 2019 have made school officials in Bartow County very happy, as three of the four high schools saw an increase in their graduation rate; all but one broke the milestone 90% mark; and all four topped the state rate.

According to graduation rates released Wednesday by the Georgia Department of Education, the Bartow County School System saw 89.2% of its seniors walk across the stage to receive their diplomas in May, a 2.1% increase over last year's rate of 87.1%.        

This was the highest rate the system has 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 Cartersville City School System had a 0.9% dip in the number of seniors who graduated this year, down to 90.4% from last year's 91.3%, but remained above the 90% mark for the second consecutive year.  

However, both systems well exceeded the all-time-high state graduation rate of 82% this year — a 0.4% increase over its 81.6% rate in 2018. Cartersville came in at 8.4% higher than the overall rate while Bartow was 7.2% higher.

In Bartow, Cass High joined Adairsville High in the 90% range, rising from 88.7% in 2018 to 90.8% this year, a 2.1% increase. 

The school reached the milestone in just six years, after posting a 59% graduation rate in 2013. 

"Cass High School is pleased to join the exclusive 90% club," Principal Stephen Revard said, noting students, staff and parents "all contributed to another year of growth." "Graduating high school is a major milestone, and we are proud of the Class of 2019 for raising the bar."

Revard also said the school saw a 4% increase in the number of honor graduates this year, had more than 96% of its students graduate with either a humanities or a career, technical and agricultural education pathway and had a number of graduates earn GaDOE diploma seals for biliteracy, international skills and career readiness. 

"Each student is different, but graduation is the goal for everyone," he said. "Students are more likely to be successful when they are engaged on a personal level. Advanced academics, career pathways, electives and extracurricular activities provide opportunities for our students to take ownership in their education while having fun along the way."     

Superintendent Dr. Phillip Page also is pleased that CHS broke the 90% plane.

"Cass High School has a clear focus on student achievement and results," he said. "That’s evident in their 90.8% graduation rate." 

After reaching the 90% level last year, Adairsville High had the district's highest percentage of graduates to receive diplomas for the second year in a row — 91.7%, up 0.5% from the 2018 rate of 91.2%. 

"The continued improvement in our graduation rate is due to several factors and changes that have occurred over time," Principal Bruce Mulkey said. "These changes are not complex. They are, in fact, very simple, but they have been difficult to implement because of the time and effort required."

Among the changes that have been made are the staff's deeper commitment to students, parents and each other; a "culture shift" initiated by teacher-leaders three years ago that "required us to re-evaluate our priorities schoolwide"; the guidance department altering the procedures for tracking students' progress towards graduation and improving the record-keeping; and more opportunities for students to learn and be successful, such as a variety of pathways offered at the Bartow County College and Career Academy and a second or third chance to earn a diploma, through Mountain Education Charter High School, for students who need a "completely different high school experience" or who have fallen behind, Mulkey said. 

"Finally, we don't see the results we've seen without a commitment from our students and our parents," he said. "I'm so proud to live in a community and work with families who accept and meet challenges time and again. We discuss this as a staff often — our students will meet and exceed our expectations, no matter where we set the bar. I'm so proud of our students for continuing to accept our challenge and rise above the line." 

Page also was thrilled to see AHS continue its climb toward the goal of a 100% graduation rate.

"I was extremely happy to see Adairsville High School break through the milestone 90% mark last year, increase their rate again this year and log a two-year graduation rate of 91.5%," he said.

Woodland High, which is knocking on the door of a 90% rate, saw the largest increase of the three Bartow schools. This year, 86.4% of the graduating seniors received their sheepskins, compared to 82.8% last year, a jump of 3.6%

Principal David Stephenson said several key factors have contributed to the increasing graduation rate, such as  monitoring attendance records to identify potential concerns before students' senior year and promoting Saturday school and other interventions to support students who commit to improvement and content mastery.

"We have established mentorships where advisement teachers work with students to promote positive behaviors and the value of the high school diploma," he said. "We follow up with parents and guardians of students who relocate to ensure placement in a new academic institution and focus on 23 credits as the standard of success, ensuring graduation is not a hope but rather an expectation of all WHS students." 

Page said the district's "historic numbers are a testament to our schools doing the right work." 

"From students to clerks to instructional staff, the collective effort is essential to student achievement and success beyond high school," he said. "I’m proud of this group for setting the expectation that all students will graduate in four years, prepared to be employed, enlisted in the military or enrolled in a post-secondary institution."

And since the state's graduation rate release, the school district has "already set a new goal to raise our overall graduation rate to 90%," Page said.

"I look forward to building off our current successes and surpassing more milestones in 2020," he said.

Cartersville High Principal Shelley Tierce said she was happy the Class of 2019 kept its graduation rate above the 90% mark.

"The success is a reflection of students who value their education and teachers and staff who are dedicated to not only educating students but building long-lasting relationships with them as well," she said. "As a school, we will continue to encourage our students to earn their high school diplomas and assist them in the development of a post-secondary plan. We strive to ensure that earning a diploma from Cartersville High School opens a door of opportunities to a wide variety of post-secondary possibilities." 

Tierce also said she is "not concerned at all about a slight decrease in our four-year cohort rate."

"Most people fail to realize what the numbers really mean, including misleading information regarding things like student transiency," she said. "Our 2019 four-year cohort graduation rate includes all of our students, even the transient ones, who enrolled in a high school anywhere in the United States as a true freshman during the 2015-16 school year. We graduated 281 students, but we had 417 students representing our school as part of our 2019 four-year cohort. Datawise, some students did not start as freshmen at Cartersville but moved into our system's district at some point between 2015 and 2019. 

"We also have numerous cases where some of these transient students enroll for only a couple of weeks. And unfortunately, if they leave us and do not enroll in another school, or even if they do not provide adequate school records to prove they have moved into a new school district, our four-year cohort graduation rate is negatively impacted because those students are considered to be dropouts from Cartersville High School by the state, even if they are not."  

Director of Strategic Initiatives and School Improvement Floyd Braid said the district also closely monitors another important number — the five-year graduation rate. 

"Some students, for a variety of reasons, need a little more time to achieve their goal of a high school diploma," he said. "Some students have health or work-related issues, and some have moved multiple times during their high school careers, which can complicate the process of receiving the number of credits required to graduate. We were excited to see an increase in our five-year cohort graduation rate of 92.3 percent, which is an increase over last year’s rate. It’s also a sincere statement on the commitment of our high school teachers and administrators to those who need just a little more support to successfully complete high school." 

Tierce said she is "extremely proud of our five-year cohort graduation rate because some students suffer hardships" that prevent them from earning the 24 credits needed to graduate in four years.

"In some ways, the five-year cohort rate means more to me because it represents students who refused to give up on their educations and chose to come back to high school and earn their diplomas, which, for some, is not always easy to do," she said. "I am not as concerned with how fast a student earns their diploma as much as I am with them receiving an education and earning a diploma on their own terms."

Tierce considers the average of the two cohort rates — 91.4% — to be the system's true graduation rate and said that figure is "not simply a number the district posts on the Georgia DOE website or prints in the local newspaper."  

"This number is a reflection of students who committed themselves to receiving their education, a reflection of teachers and staff members who work harder than any group of educators I have ever had the honor of working with, a reflection of tough love, tears shed, good times, bad times and meaningful relationships we developed with our former students who are now active, viable members of our community," she said.

Statewide, 71 Georgia school districts recorded graduation rates at or above 90% in 2019, with 24 districts recording rates at or above 95%, according to a DOE press release. 

The state rates have grown steadily since Georgia began using the adjusted cohort calculation, starting at 69.7 percent in 2012 and climbing to 82 percent this year, an increase of 12.3%, the release said.

"I’m proud today of Georgia’s teachers and students, who are doing the on-the-ground work that leads to increases in our graduation rate and other indicators – including NAEP and Georgia Milestones scores,” State School Superintendent Richard Woods said in the release. "Moving forward, we must continue to focus on offering a relevant education and preparing every child for their future – not a one-size-fits-all system that sends every student in the same direction but a tailored and personalized pathway based on a student’s academic and career interests and future goals."