In sports, they might call it going from “worst to first.”
Harlem High School’s 16-percent jump in graduation rate has leapfrogged the county’s other four high schools in one year, putting it at the head of the class.
Columbia County school officials thought the school’s perennial last-place graduation rate would improve this year, but they weren’t sure by how much, said Superintendent Sandra Carraway.
“We knew that they would increase, but we didn’t have the final numbers until this week,” she said. “That is a huge advancement.”
Harlem’s four-year graduation rate improved from 66.9 percent in 2012 to a startling 83.3 percent this year, according to figures compiled by the Georgia Department of Education. The next highest school was Lakeside High at 79.4 percent.
Harlem Principal Dietmar Perez said the figures confirmed what teachers and administrators at the school expected to see. Perez said the improvement came from years of concentrated focus on raising standards and learning how to help students stick with it, in order to collect their diplomas in a four-year span.
“It has been something that we have focused on for the previous four years,” he said.
Perez said one of the first things they targeted was improving the ninth-grade retention rate. Keeping students from failing their first year of high school is key to keeping them on track to continue their education and to graduate on time, he said.
In the past four years Harlem has reduced the freshman failure rate from around 20 percent of the class to about 5 percent.
“Improving the ninth- grade retention rate is very important to the graduation rate,” he said. “Eventually, those things go hand in hand.”
Perez also emphasized the importance of the support of Columbia County Community Connections, the nonprofit group that’s aimed at encouraging children and strengthening families.
The organization has been offering after-school and summer programs to students at Harlem High for several years, said Executive Director Julie Miller.
But in the last three years, Miller said they’ve really been focused on pushing hard and raising the graduation rate. Five years ago, the school’s graduation rate was 59 percent, she said.
‘‘I think that it is just spectacular,” said Miller, who learned of the graduation rate along with the school faculty on Wednesday. “It took everybody. It took all the teachers, leaders at the school, all the kids, community partners. It’s nice to be a small part of that.”
Community Connections offers instructional support through the 21st Century grant, which funds academic assistance, credit recovery and enrichment activities in after-school and summer programs. The organization also runs a summer work experience program for teens, mostly from Harlem High.
Perez said offering extra support for students who fall behind is key to keeping them academically motivated and in the classroom.
“Not all of these children go home to a warm and loving environment,” he said.
Tutoring, after-school programs and virtual school instruction were all part of various resources employed to help students. School leaders, including graduation coach David Thibodeau, have encouraged students through the Commitment to Graduate theme.
Perez also gave the school faculty much of the credit for making the program work.
”We have a a bunch of excellent teachers that really care about these kids,” he said.
He said the 21st Century grant funded a summer school program at Harlem that gave students a way to recover credits and complete coursework they might otherwise miss. He said unlike other summer school programs, Harlem’s provided bus service to and from school to each student’s home.
“A lot of these kids would not be able to come to school otherwise,” he said.
Perez said last year’s graduating class was an “extraordinary group” who achieved a great deal in their four years at Harlem.
“I think it’ll be great for Harlem, for the town and the community to realize these kids, they did awesome work,” Miller said. “It shows you that if everybody pulls together what can happen, that it is possible. Hard work does pay off in the long run.”