Athens-Clarke Schools Behind as Oconee County Schools Thrive

John McCrea is an Oconee County High School senior on the school’s swim team and show choir. Jade Hines is a Clarke Central High School senior who is on her school’s dance team and volunteers often around Athens. The difference: One student’s high school has higher graduation rates than the other.

For years, Oconee County schools have exceeded Athens-Clarke County schools academically. Oconee County Schools are ranked fourth in the state for students graduating within four years and one summer. Their cohort high school graduation rate in 2011 was 91.5 percent while Athens-Clarke County’s cohort high school graduation rate was 66.1 percent.

Sheila Beckham, the principal of Oconee County High School, believes that a strong sense of community in Oconee County contributes heavily to student success.

“Parents are involved in the education of their children. Also, when someone in the community is struggling (financially or otherwise) community members wrap their arms around them and help. I firmly believe that the sense of community, parent involvement, and value on education are the major contributing factors to our high graduation rate,” Beckham says.

Beckham also commented on her future plans, academically, for OCHS and what she believes will keep the high school graduation rates high among Oconee County.

“We will continue to offer instructional opportunities that meet the students where they are and challenge them to grow. We see a need for teacher training in that students are changing and teachers need to learn how to keep them engaged. Teaching and learning should always be fun,” Beckham says.

Robbie Hooker, principal of Clarke Central High School, says there are many issues hindering Athens-Clarke County students from graduating, but that student motivation is not one of them.

“Life circumstances, systemic failures, lack of family support and a lack of student motivation are a few conditions that cause students in our community to not complete high school. It is not the lack of ability of our students; it mostly attributed to other factors,” Hooker says.

In Athens-Clarke County, 82 percent of students are “economically disadvantaged” (qualify for free or reduced price lunch), 49 percent of children live in single-parent homes and 19 percent of adults did not graduate from high school.

Paula Shilton, the Director of the Clarke County Mentor Program, mentions that a number of factors play major roles in why more high school students aren’t graduating in Athens-Clarke County.

“In households with fewer adults, who may be under a great deal of stress because of low income, and who have limited time while working multiple jobs, it is more difficult to provide the support for children’s educational progress – – trips to the library, attendance at cultural events, computer access, reading aloud, reviewing homework – – that is often seen in households with more income and stability,” Shilton says.

According to Athens Patch, Athens-Clarke County faces budget cuts of almost $9 million. These cuts include decreasing schools’ teaching staff, delaying the openings of two new elementary schools, and increasing furlough days from three to five. Additionally, both Clarke Central High School and Cedar Shoals High School have lost funding for after school buses, which could cause a lot of after school programs for students to be shut down and working parents to find an alternative place for their children to stay until they get off work.

Hooker says that the loss of after school buses was an unfortunate turn of events for both students and after school programs.

“Budget cuts are unfortunate circumstances that have an impact on giving our students a quality education. Unfortunately, our afterschool program was impacted due to recent budget restraints,” Hooker says. “Fortunately we have been able to modify our afterschool budget to reduced, but not eliminate the number of days that we offer afterschool programs. We invite the community to volunteer to help with the afterschool programs.”

One joint after school program that had to shut down as a result of these funding cuts was Strive for College, a UGA-based mentoring program where UGA students serve as mentors for junior and senior high school students at both Cedar Shoals High School and Clarke Central High School.

Melanie Wiggins, a junior at UGA and the former Director of Internal Relations of Strive for College, says that after both high schools lost funding for after school buses and many mentees could not stay after school, Strive for College’s mission was majorly impacted.

“It is already hard enough to recruit students to stay after school for Strive, but without buses, and with most of these students’ parents getting off work too late to pick them up, we had to completely change our game plan. I think that losing after school buses has had a significant impact on any after school activities that students want to participate in,” Wiggins says. “I know that I derived a lot of meaning and satisfaction in my high school career because of my extracurricular involvement, and it’s really sad that some students may have had to sacrifice that fulfillment because they did not have a way home.”

With test scores, 57.9 percent of high school students in Athens-Clarke County passed the Georgia High School Graduation Test in 2011. In Oconee County, almost 90 percent of students passed the GHSGT.

Hooker believes that mentoring, along with other strategies, could be a definite solution to increasing high school test scores and graduation rates.

“Mentoring is a strategy that we have implemented over the years to help build stronger relationships between faculty and students who are most in need of academic and emotional support,” Hooker states.  “…we offer remediation during the day, afterschool, and on some Saturdays. We also use several online programs that offer remediation for students. I believe that the big thing for students who have trouble passing is the lack of self confidence and test anxiety…Test preparation starts early and at home.”

Shilton states that graduation rates have already increased in Athens-Clarke County, attributing the increase to different District resources.

“Graduation rates have increased significantly over the past several years, due to Clarke County School District initiatives such as graduation coaches, neighborhood visits to find students who have dropped out and encourage them to return, and the opening of Classic City High School and the Athens Community Career Academy, which provide wider curriculum choices and more individualized instructional methods that can help engage students,” Shilton says.

Wiggins feels that students aren’t being inspired enough to go to college and that the community should take stronger initiative to help students succeed and graduate.

“I think that the most important thing that can be done is empowering the students. They need to understand that college is an option for them, and then they need to be provided the resources that allow them to get there. Teachers, principals, parents, and community partners should be rallying around and encouraging these kids to succeed,” Wiggins says.

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