Seated on risers in the chorus room at Cherokee High School are about a dozen students who—just two months into the school year—have already missed five days.
Their poor attendance is a red flag signaling to school officials here that those students might want to drop out. That’s why they were summoned to this meeting.
“We just want you to back up why you were not here,” Nick Zincone, the 1,800-student school’s first-ever “graduation coach,” says to the group, almost pleading with the students to provide some proof that they had acceptable reasons for being absent.
At the end of the session, a few students approach Mr. Zincone to explain why they didn’t come to school. Some say they were sick and thought they brought excuses. A few are pregnant, Principal Pam Biser notes later, and were either too tired or too sick to attend.
Others seem unimpressed by Mr. Zincone’s offers of small gift certificates and other incentives to entice them to stay in school. Quickly leaving the room after the group was officially dismissed, a male student wearing a navy-blue T-shirt mutters something about not wanting to “waste my time here.”
Still, Mr. Zincone—who admits that at least once during his high school years, he could have benefited from having a graduation coach—says he feels fulfilled in his new position.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t have someone coming in here” asking for help, he says.
‘A Coach Motivates … A Coach Guides’
The former social studies teacher is part of Georgia’s highly visible new attempt to increase the state’s graduation rate.
SOURCE: Communities in Schools of Georgia
Rather than giving school counselors or administrators one more task, Gov. Sonny Perdue’s goal for the program, which was approved by the legislature this year, is to provide every high school in the state with a full-time staff member who would better identify the population of students more likely to quit school and help devise alternative plans for helping them graduate.
“Your sport is high school. And winning is more graduates walking the stage each May,” the Republican governor, who was re-elected last week, told the graduation coaches in early September when they gathered in Atlanta for their first training session. “In my experience, a coach isn’t just someone with a playbook and a whistle. A coach touches lives. A coach motivates, and a coach guides.”
Georgia’s program, budgeted at $15 million this fiscal year, comes as a variety of efforts across the country are trying to improve students’ chances of finishing school. For example, Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat who was also re-elected last week, announced a proposal earlier this fall to reduce absenteeism in high schools and cut community college tuition costs to encourage more high school students to attend college.
Other strategies to improve graduation rates include establishing 9th grade “academies,” which are designed to partially shelter freshmen from the distractions of moving into high school and to provide them with extra support during that first year.
Numbers of students who have failed components of the Georgia high school graduation test.
SOURCE: Communities in Schools of Georgia
In Georgia, Wanda Creel, the state education department’s director of school improvement, said she knows the state is walking into unfamiliar territory with its graduation-coach program.
“We’re kind of being the trailblazer, but it’s exciting,” she said. “We’re establishing this from the ground up.”
Those taking on the challenge at the local level are finding that flexibility, creativity, and additional resources beyond what the state has provided will be necessary.
“One side of me likes this because they are saying, ‘Here’s the money,’” said Frank Petruzielo, the superintendent of the 34,000-student Cherokee County school district, referring to the $200,000 his district is getting from the state for the program. The district supplements that aid with its own contribution to the program in order to pay the five coaches annual salaries of about $70,000.
Still, he cautioned that the program also has the potential to be just another “quick-fix model” if school and district leaders don’t take the problem very seriously.
“You’re not going to solve the dropout problem with one more person,” he said.
The Cherokee County district, located in a rapidly growing suburb less than an hour north of Atlanta, includes Cherokee High and four other high schools, each of which has a graduation coach. Because the district started school earlier than most Georgia systems, administrators here had to act quickly to hire people for the new position and implement a plan for meeting the short-term goals set by the state.
The district’s tasks include running data reports on fifth-year seniors and “credit deficient” students, identifying community organizations or mentors that could help, and setting up “individual graduation plans” for students in a coach’s caseload.
An initial statewide report based on the first 20 days of school and submitted to Communities in Schools, the nonprofit agency helping to oversee the program, showed that more than 40,000 second- through fourth-year high school students have been identified as being not on schedule to graduate with their classmates.
Meeting Individual Needs
At the southern end of Cherokee County, Debbie Goldberg, the graduation coach at Woodstock High School, has been meeting with an 18-year-old sophomore who has only seven credits toward the 22 he needs for graduation.
The teenager works most nights until midnight, and Ms. Goldberg has advised him to ask his employer if he can cut back his hours, and to enroll in the district’s evening school so he can make up some credits.
“He’s not a lazy child,” she said. “He has to make some money.”
Other students, however, she described as “spoiled, rotten brats,” who might be skipping their early-morning classes only because they don’t want to get out of bed.
Energetic and friendly, the former science teacher said she has to be a “chameleon”—able to adapt graduation plans to individual student needs.
The state requires graduation coaches to have at least three years’ experience working at the secondary school level. But Cherokee County district administrators knew that they would need to offer significantly more than the $40,000 per coach provided by the state—roughly a first-year teacher’s salary in the district—to attract qualified candidates. So the district decided to almost double what it receives from the state to offer the higher salaries.
Jennifer Rippner, Gov. Perdue’s education adviser, said the governor originally asked the legislature for $55,000 per coach, but that amount was trimmed. She added that she knows local districts need to supplement the amount from the state, and that Bartow County, northeast of Atlanta, has even hired half-time data clerks to help monitor the students deemed at risk and to stay on top of the paperwork.
Following the Law
While the concept of high school graduation coaches has been generally well received in Georgia, some observers and administrators point out that students often lose hope of being successful in school long before they reach 9th grade.
A position statement from the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, the state’s largest teachers’ group, says “the ‘die is cast’ on school dropouts very early in their learning careers, well before high school. Much research tells us that failure in the early grades, particularly failure to learn to read by grade 3 is a very high indicator of school dropout.”
Mr. Petruzielo, the Cherokee County superintendent, had similar reactions and instructed the district’s newly hired coaches to also work with the middle and elementary schools that feed into their high schools.
Mr. Zincone of Cherokee High, for example, has already received a request from one of the district’s elementary schools to meet with a 13-year-old girl who is asking if she can drop out.
And Etowah High School, also in the county, plans to invite all 8th graders who will feed into the school for at least four visits there this year to help ease their transition into 9th grade.
Gov. Perdue addressed such concerns with a pledge this fall to request another $20 million to $25 million from the state legislature in January for middle school coaches.
The governor has also been especially clear that he wants principals and other administrators to avoid the temptation to use the new staff members for duties other than helping students graduate. Superintendent Petruzielo fully supports Mr. Perdue in that regard.
“We don’t want it mucked up by having these people redirected to other things,” Mr. Petruzielo says.
At least one district, though, doesn’t agree that such a stipulation is necessary. The 22,400-student Fayette County district, south of Atlanta, has appointed graduation coaches, but they are also still teaching classes.
“Are we participating? Yes, but we differ,” said Melinda Berry-Dreisbach, a spokeswoman for the district, adding that many programs are already in place to help keep students in school. She added that Fayette County is not taking the additional state money since new employees were not hired, and that the district’s plan was approved by the state.
Heather Hedrick, a spokeswoman for the governor, said Mr. Perdue supports local control. But when hearing how Fayette County is approaching its graduation-coach program, she said, “Unless their graduation rate is 100 percent, we’re not satisfied.”
Some districts have also struggled to implement the law as the state intends.
“With this being a new program, we do have some situations that we are having to work with in order to get people in place that are solely responsible for this job,” said Ms. Creel, the state education department official overseeing the program. “However, it is the exception in most cases that people have responsibilities in addition to their graduation coach duties.”
Establishing this position is not the first action Georgia has taken to improve its high school completion rate. And it shows. In September, the governor’s office announced that the rate has risen above 70 percent for the first time in state history, climbing from 63.3 percent in the 2003-04 school year to 70.8 percent in 2005-06.
Two years ago, for instance, the state passed a law requiring students to stay in school to keep their driver’s licenses. And the Georgia Virtual High School, which offers online courses to students across the state, was created in 2005 to give students additional chances to take the courses they need and to pursue advanced courses not offered at their schools.
During the 2004-05 school year, the Georgia education department put a staff member in charge of efforts to increase the state’s average scores on the SAT.
David Spence, the president of the Southern Regional Education Board, based in Atlanta, said that even if all the graduation coaches do is encourage students to graduate, that’s more than schools had before.
“I think there is value in just symbolism,” he said.
Still, he said, the coaches should inspire co-workers as well as struggling students. “The key thing that has to happen,” he said, “is that completion is everybody’s business.”
Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2006 edition of Education Week as Graduation Coaches Pursue One Goal