Mary Ann Sasser has always been a strong supporter of her daughter’s school. On Friday nights during football season, it was common to find her working in the concession stand during games at Sonoraville High School, in Calhoun, Ga.
That was before Trace Vaughn, the graduation coach at the 980-student North Georgia school, asked Ms. Sasser to serve as the school’s “community coach,” who, like him, will focus on improving the graduation rate at Sonoraville.
Ms. Sasser, a human-resources manager at Shaw Industries —a carpet and flooring manufacturer in the nearby town of Dalton—agreed enthusiastically to take on the newly created role.
“There is such a new emphasis on academics,” said Ms. Sasser, whose daughter Brigitte is a junior at the school. “Now we have an academic booster club. Those kinds of things we had never heard of before.”
As one of more than 300 community coaches across Georgia, Ms. Sasser is part of a new volunteer corps of business people focused on reducing the number of dropouts in their communities and mobilizing others who can work toward the same goal.
The initiative, which is intended to supplement a statewide graduation-coach program begun in the 2006-07 school year, was sparked by a challenge to the Georgia Chamber of Commerce from Gov. Sonny Perdue in January, as well as by a desire by some members of the corporate world to play a more active role in improving education. Local chambers of commerce, Kiwanis Clubs, and other groups have also stepped up to the plate.
“For a long time, [business leaders] have been in the cheering section, saying, ‘We really need this workforce,’ ” said Bert Brantley, a spokesman for Gov. Perdue. “This is a chance for them to get out of the stands and down on the field.”
Kerry Campbell, a community-development manager for the Atlanta-based utility company Georgia Power, said businesses often have held celebratory events for students after they reached certain goals, such as for perfect attendance. But businesses, also were “looking for ways to really make that relationship with schools work.”
The graduation-coach program, an initiative of the Republican governor, put a full-time paid staff member in every public high school in the state last school year—about 330—to help keep students on track to a diploma. (“Graduation Coaches Pursue One Goal,” Nov. 15, 2006.)
Gov. Perdue said he recognized that struggling students often begin to drop out well before they reach 9th grade. This fall, middle school coaches were added. The state has budgeted about $21 million for the high school program, and another $25 million for the middle school graduation coaches.
So far, state data suggest that having a single person in charge of designing and monitoring graduation plans for high school students who are falling behind is an effective strategy.
The state’s graduation rate rose just a little more than 1 percentage point in the past year, to 72.3 in 2006-07 from 70.8 in 2005-06. But officials say they are more pleased that the number of dropouts—which includes more than just seniors—fell last school year by about 10 percent, to about 21,000 from more than 23,000 students statewide. And that happened even though the overall high school student population rose to 446,500, an increase of more than 9,000.
“I’m very proud of the hard work of our graduation coaches over the past year,” Mr. Perdue said in a press release Sept. 28. “They are changing the lives of students by keeping them in school, keeping them motivated to learn, and keeping them focused on the future.”
Other Southern states seem to be taking note. Alabama has expressed interest in starting something similar, said Jennifer Rippner, the executive director of the Georgia governor’s Office of Student Achievement.
And last month, when the Georgia graduation statistics were released, a Florida newspaper ran an article about the state’s progress, mentioning the program.
The graduation coaches have had multiple responsibilities— a load that suggested a need for the new community-coach volunteers.
Not only do graduation coaches meet one-on-one with students who are at risk of dropping out, they also collect and closely monitor data on students who lack sufficient credits or fail the state’s high school graduation test.
On top of that, according to Ms. Rippner, graduation coaches were saying, “ ‘I’ve got all these business people at the door, and I don’t know what to do with them.’ ” The community coaches will be able to help mobilize volunteers and organize opportunities for students that drive home the need for a high school diploma, she said.
Ms. Sasser, for example, is lining up volunteers to speak to students in a new Junior Achievement economics course that is offered at Sonoraville High School. She and Mr. Vaughn also organized a “reality store” in which students pick a career, figure out how much they’ll be earning, and see how much money they’ll have left to live on after paying their bills.
Another idea of Ms. Sasser’s is to have companies bring some of their high-tech machines into the school and train students.
“They have technical jobs they don’t have workers for, and we have kids without jobs,” Mr. Vaughn said.
Communities in Schools of Georgia, a nonprofit organization that provides training for the high school and middle school graduation coaches, also has prepared a list of recommended projects that the community coaches can draw from, such as setting up job-shadowing opportunities, offering mock job-interview days, showing students how to fill out job applications, and providing summer jobs.
So far, about 350 community coaches have been lined up, for high schools only, although there is an expectation that community coaches will be added at middle schools eventually.
Ms. Sasser said she expects to devote personal time to her community-coach responsibilities. But she said Shaw Industries always has encouraged its employees to find ways to volunteer, although the company has no formal policy on providing release time for their volunteer work. At Georgia Power, Mr. Campbell said, there is “an expectation” that employees will be involved in their communities. He said the company offers “leniency” for those volunteering their time, depending on their duties.
Bolstering companies’ motivation for participating in such programs is a project Gov. Perdue started last year in cooperation with the state chamber of commerce.
Through the Georgia Department of Labor, a county can become a Certified Work Ready Community by helping to increase graduation rates and making sure local graduates have the right skills to get a job. And graduates seeking jobs also can earn a Certified Work Ready label through taking a free assessment of their workplace skills. Companies also have their own interests in mind when more students complete high school, Mr. Campbell said.
“Fifty percent of our employees will be gone in nine years,” he said of Georgia Power. “Just to replenish what we’ve got, a tremendous number of people with quality skills are going to be needed.”Program’s initial results prompt state to recruit private-sector volunteers to aid in diploma quest
A version of this article appeared in the October 17, 2007 edition of Education Week as Georgia’s Graduation-Coach Team to Grow