TRENTON, Ga. - Kindergartners overran Dade County High School on Tuesday morning, trekking up and down the hallways, eating in the cafeteria and visiting classrooms.
The school system used the morning to acclimate about 160 students from Dade and Davis elementary schools to their eventual high school campus. But officials say the trip was geared at instilling the expectation that all students will graduate -- a message that students can't hear too early or too often.
While a school district's graduation rate might seem like a problem for high schools, Dade County Superintendent Shawn Tobin said that number speaks to the success of the entire school system. Under a new statewide calculation, Dade County's graduation rate is about 70 percent, according to 2011 report card results, the latest data available.
"We blame the high school for the graduation rate," Tobin said. "But it really starts at kindergarten."
The district is now in the middle of a systematic graduation push, spanning from kindergarten to 12th grade. Students in kindergarten, fifth and eighth grades will take annual pilgrimages to the high school to keep the message of graduation in the spotlight.
"We don't see them all the time, but we want them to know they're as important as the students in our building," Dade County High Principal Josh Ingle said.
On Tuesday, the kindergarten students received cookies made in home economics classes and Christmas ornaments handmade by students in construction classes. The wooden snowmen, school buses, Christmas trees and footballs were adorned with "Class of 2025."
"Some of these kids will have those ornaments on their trees until they graduate," said James Cantrell, a high school assistant principal and the district's director of college and career readiness.
The school system is trying to put more hands-on classes, such as welding, into the high school to keep kids interested in school. Those career-minded classes help students find real-world connections to concepts and theories taught in traditional academic classes, Cantrell said.
Even at the earliest grades, the district is pushing career readiness.
Dade Elementary has implemented a career academy, so students can at least start thinking about career fields. Assistant Principal Heath Johnson said the district's overall graduation push is aimed at showing students that school has a purpose.
"It's allowing these kids to see we have an end in mind," he said.
And if schools can get students engaged and interested early on, Johnson said, it will be much easier to keep them on track in middle and high school.
"You want to make school a positive experience -- something they love and not something they dread," he said. "If we can instill a love for learning early, that will carry on."