Tennessee is leading the charge in raising the nation's graduation rate, increasing its own number more than 15 percentage points from 2002 to 2008.
A recent study by former Secretary of State Colin Powell's education nonprofit America's Promise Alliance, Civic Enterprises and Johns Hopkins University praised Tennessee's efforts, saying elected officials, business leaders and educators worked together to bring the high school graduation rate from 59.6 percent in 2002 to 74.9 percent in 2008.
In 2002, only South Carolina's graduation rate was lower than Tennessee's 59.6 percent, at 57.9 percent.
"If other states replicate what Tennessee has done, we won't have a dropout crisis," said David Park, an executive vice president for the alliance. "State leaders and community leaders throughout the state decided they were going to do something about this, and the results have been extraordinary."
Park pointed to a law passed in Tennessee in 2001 that requires students who are 15 to 18 to stay in school in order to keep their driver's licenses as an example of statewide efforts to improve graduation rates.
Still, Tennessee's rate is only now about the average across the country. And that average is about 15 percentage points below where it needs to be in the next 10 years, the report says.
Nationally, the graduation rate increased from 72.6 percent in 2002 to 74.9 percent in 2008, the report says.
County numbers up
And locally, Hamilton County Schools officials think they've got reason to celebrate, too, as the district's preliminary graduation rate for 2010 shows a nearly 10 percentage point increase, from 70.9 percent to 80.2 percent.
"Going into last year, it looked like we were going to fail miserably, but [Superintendent Jim] Scales said, 'That's not going to happen; y'all need to get on it,'" said James Colbert, assistant superintendent of campus operations and high school director. "But this is huge. It's probably the highest increase in any school district in Tennessee."
The 80.2 percent is preliminary because the Tennessee Department of Education has yet to release the state report card. Later than usual, thanks to the state's new standards and curriculum, officials expect to release the information by mid-December.
Kirk Kelly, the district's director of accountability and testing, is working on the appeals process with the state. The process includes tracking students the state says have dropped out of school, and making sure that they didn't just leave Hamilton County and move to another school district, or perhaps graduate after attending summer school.
"You've got to make sure everyone is coded correctly," Kelly said.
Hamilton County's original graduation rate for 2010 was estimated to be 77 percent, Kelly said, but he is confident it will be over 80 percent by the time he's finished.
At a glance
* More than half of all states -- 29 total -- increased their statewide graduation rate from 2002 to 2008.
* Tennessee led the nation by boosting graduation rates 15 percentage points from 2002 to 2008.
* Nationwide, 400,000 fewer students were enrolled in "dropout factories" (the almost 2,000 high schools identified by Johns Hopkins University researchers that lose more than 40 percent of their students between ninth and 12th grades) in 2008 compared with 2002; seven states, including Tennessee and Georgia, accounted for 71 percent of the decline.
Source: America's Promise Alliance, "Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic"
After two straight years of declines in Hamilton County's graduation rate, Colbert said officials last year tackled the problem head-on. Kelly created a detailed online template for each high school principal.
The individualized document included the name of each student at the school and whether each was "on track" to graduate, "fragile" and likely to drop out, or likely to graduate late.
"We literally wrote down every student's name and categorized them," Colbert said.
The system allowed principals to know how many students they had to graduate to meet their graduation rate goals, and the size of the original freshman class that should be graduating. It also let educators step in early to help students recover credits they were missing, before they got frustrated and dropped out, Colbert said.
Colbert, who is leaving the district at the end of the month to become superintendent of the Orange Grove Consolidated Independent School District in Texas, said the hardest part will be replicating and sustaining the success.
"Even with a 10 percent gain, I still didn't feel like we hit full stride," he said. "Then again, that could be offset by the state's new standards."
Despite progress in Hamilton County and across the country, the report calls the "overall national picture ... still troubling." Every year, more than 1 million public high school students still fail to graduate with their class.
"The rate of progress over the last decade -- 3 percentage points -- is too slow to reach the national goal of having 90 percent of students graduate from high school and obtain at least one year of postsecondary schooling or training by 2020. Over the next 10 years, the nation will need to accelerate its progress in boosting high school graduation rates fivefold from the rates achieved through 2008," the report says.
But Park insists that it's important to celebrate positive steps.
"We hear the bad news about education all the time and sometimes it gets discouraging. ... But you can't discount success. Success is success."
Contact Kelli Gauthier at email@example.com or 423 757-6249. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/gauthierkellis.