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In this 2016 file photo, Ridgeland High School students Jacob Rogers, Draven Chapman and Xavier Meyer look at equipment models at Astec Inc. during a job fair. The Walker County Schools district has once again seen an increase in graduation rates thanks to factors like increased access to opportunities, state officials say.

Amid a hefty agenda, Walker County School Board officials took a moment during their Oct. 15 meeting to formally celebrate the recent increase in high school graduation rates.

Released by the Georgia Department of Education late last month, the adjusted cohort graduation rate measures the number of students who graduated with a regular high school diploma within four years of starting ninth grade.

2018 Grad Rates By School

WALKER COUNTY
Ridgeland High: 90.8
LaFayette High: 84.5

CATOOSA COUNTY
Heritage High: 91.3
Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High: 82.3
Ringgold High: 90.3

Source: Georgia Department of Education

According to this year's calculations, 520 of the 591 students in Walker's 2018 graduating class earned their diplomas this year, raising the county's rate from 85.4 percent to 88 percent.

When Georgia first began using the calculation in 2012, Walker County Schools' graduation rate sat at 69.4 percent, well below the national average of 81 percent at the time.

"That means out of every 10 kids, we were seeing only seven graduate," said Superintendent Damon Raines. "So three out of every 10 kids we were failing miserably."

To address the problem, the district formed a graduation task force in 2013 to determine at which point in students' progression the school system was losing them and why the number of graduates was not climbing.

The resulting data led to the appointment of mission support specialists, who worked to find students in the county's two high schools who were not on track for graduation and work with them individually to create a plan that would help them make obtaining their diploma a possibility. These specialists also began to identify eighth-grade students who were at risk of dropping out of school, to keep them on the path to graduation.

"We are committed to the role of the mission support specialists," Raines said. "Their work continues to improve, and the ability to locate and focus on students at risk has become the norm in all our schools."

To ensure that Walker's graduation rate continues to rise, the county has implemented graduation task force teams in each of its 15 schools this year. Raines said the goal is to "eliminate dropping out as an option" by identifying and working with at-risk students earlier, assuring that more students are performing at their grade level and are on track to enter high school.

Raines also credited the increase in graduates to the district's educators and said the county will continue to provide professional development on ways to effectively engage students.

"Our teachers are fabulous. Every staff member that works for us works hard every day," he said. "They have one goal, and that is to make sure our students are being successful, they're offered opportunities and that they have ability to come back and work and live and play in a great community. And we're excited about being a part of that."

some text The Ridgeland student section cheers for its football team during a home game against Heritage on Sept. 21.

Walker's school district is not the only one celebrating.

Catoosa County Schools also saw an increase in its graduation rate this year, with its percentage rising from 85.3 to 87.8 percent. The new scoring marks a 10 percent increase in Catoosa's graduation rate since 2012, when it was 79.6 percent.

Overall, the entire state of Georgia saw an increase in rates for the seventh straight year since adopting the measurement, which is now required by federal law. The state now sits at an all-time high of 81.6 percent, placing both Walker and Catoosa above the state average.

Richard Woods, state school superintendent, credited the continual rise to public school students' growing access to opportunities from "dual enrollment to the fine arts."

"There is an unprecedented emphasis on supporting the whole child and making sure every single student understands the relevance of what they're learning," Woods said in a statement. "I'm confident we'll continue to see these gains as long as we're still expanding opportunities that keep students invested in their education."

Email Myron Madden at mmadden@timesfreepress.com.

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