Georgia's graduation rate in 2010 surpassed the 80 percent benchmark for the first time, though most Northwest Georgia high schools fell short of the state average.
Whitfield County reached its own milestone with all three of its high schools tallying graduation rates above 80 percent for the first time, officials said.
Seven years ago, when the state began a campaign to improve graduation numbers, Whitfield County's rate was just 49.9 percent and the statewide rate was 63.3 percent.
Today, spurred by the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Georgia schools have experienced dramatic improvement across the board. After summer's retesting, graduations and appeals were included in this fall's updated 2010 numbers, the state achieved an 80.8 percent graduation rate.
For the 2009-10 school year, a total of 91,561 students received diplomas.
Southeast Whitfield High missed the state's graduation rate by 0.6 percent, while Northwest High and Whitfield Career Academy bettered the state's average, records show.
System spokesman Eric Beavers said the key is getting to know students.
"Improving relationships helps teachers and staff build on their students' strengths, overcome their weaknesses, set goals beyond graduation and prepare them to reach those goals in college or a career," Beavers said.
Teachers and administrators will maintain the same course in the future by designing student work "that instills a passion for learning," he said.
Across Georgia's top left corner, records show four of 11 high schools exceeded the state's average. The state and five of the 11 local schools surpassed the new 2010 federal NCLB benchmark of 80 percent for adequate yearly progress this fall, compared with three before updated summer data was included, records show.
Chickamauga City Schools' Gordon Lee High School was the only school in the Chattanooga area to lose ground on 2009 figures, but Gordon Lee still has the region's highest graduation rate at 92.7 percent, records show.
Gordon Lee's 2009 rate was 97.2. Of more than 350 schools reporting statewide, 62 achieved rates of 90 percent or better in 2010, records show.
Chickamauga officials say it's hard for the system to maintain such high percentages year to year in the school's relatively small graduating class.
LaFayette High School experienced the greatest increase in the region with a 9.2 percentage point gain over its 2009 rate, records show.
The gain is due to a three-year effort to get faculty and students on the same track, said LaFayette High Principal Roger Hibbs, echoing the importance of the teacher-student team noted by Beavers.
"The kids have to know that we care about them first," Hibbs said. "It's the relationships built between students and faculty that make the difference."
He said an increased focus on middle-schoolers is helping. Middle school students who don't pass state standardized tests are held back for remediation, and that investment results in more success in high school, he said.
"We're going to crack that 80 percent mark ourselves," he predicted.
Elsewhere in the region, high schools in Catoosa, Dade, Dalton and Murray also improved graduation rates over last year, records show.
Records show Murray County High School's 6.8 percentage point increase to a rate of 77.6 percent was the second biggest two-year gain in the area.
Dalton High's rate climbed to 89.6 in 2010, a 4.7 percentage point jump from 2009 and second highest rate in the region, records show.
Graduation rates at Catoosa's Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High and Ringgold High improved over 2009 by 1.7 percentage points and 2.5 percentage points, respectively, records show.
Dade County High drew nearer to goals with a rate of 77.4, up from 75.9 in 2009, record show.
Across the state, all groups of students experienced "significant increases" in the rate in 2010, and records show dramatic increases since 2003, state officials said in a release.
The rate among African-American students was 75.8 percent, up more than 23 percentage points from 2003, officials said. Georgia's Hispanic students had a rate of 77.6 percent, up 29 percent from 2003. The rate among economically disadvantaged students was 76 percent in 2010, an increase of more than 24 percentage points, officials said.
Contact staff writer Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6569.