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Graduation rates focus of PROPEL summit
Crowd discussed ideas at meeting
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Dana Anderson and Evelina Kravchuk offer ideas during a breakout session. - photo by Jennifer Sami
How do you take something great and make it better?

That was the common theme of the PROPEL Economics of Education Summit on Friday, where more than 130 community leaders worked to come up with ideas to improve Forsyth County’s already high graduation rate.

PROPEL, or Pathways for Reaching Opportunities in Preparing for Excellence in Life, is a joint effort of the school system and the Cumming-Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce.

The program’s steering committee worked since February to lay the groundwork for Friday’s summit, which welcomed various school system stakeholders. Among them: students, teachers, elected officials, community leaders and business executives.

Chamber of commerce chairman Tracey Moon, who came up with the idea for PROPEL, said the cross section of participants offered a full gamut of possible solutions.         

“They all provided input from their own little niches and that’s what we needed,” he said. “We all have our own personal experiences and we need alternative view points, alternative ideas because that’s what increases the likelihood of the plan being successful.”

Ideas generated

Stakeholders were divided into five groups, with each group discussing one of five topics: relevance to life after high school; transitions from elementary to middle and high school; student-educator relationships; identification of at-risk learners and action steps; and community and family communication and involvement.

Groups worked to come up with ideas for improvement in each area.

Among ideas generated were: finding ways for the community to understand its role; addressing the challenge of transportation to and from assistance programs; and focusing more on careers at the middle school level.

Stakeholders also said it’s important to include financial literacy in curriculum; show a connection between technical colleges and four-year universities; encourage students to self-advocate; and build relationships between students and their teachers.

For at-risk students, stakeholders said it’s necessary to reach out to students early on in their school careers, let them know why they’re learning the material and how it will be relevant to their lives after graduation. When students struggle, stakeholders suggested finding alternate ways of intervening when traditional teaching methods fail.

Real world impact

Before splitting into groups, participants heard from Steve Dolinger, president of Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education.

While Forsyth’s near-90 percent graduation rate is far ahead of the state, Dolinger said that remaining 10 percent will have negative economic impacts on the community, state and nation.

Those students will likely earn a lower income, which leads to fewer purchases, resulting in lower tax income for the county sales tax, he said.

On average, the difference in income between a high school dropout and graduate is $10,000 per year, with graduates making an average yearly salary of $32,400.

Unemployment rates also jump from 10.5 to 14.5 percent between graduates and dropouts, he said.

“You’re a leader in our state. People look to Forsyth County all the time,” Dolinger said. “You don’t want to compare yourself to just what the best [Georgia] school systems ... do. You want to compare yourself to the best in the world.”

A new way to count

Especially in a few years, comparing will be even more difficult, said Sue Derison, the school system’s director of information systems and support. The current graduation rate is based on the percentage of students who graduate with a regular diploma.

That calculation will change in 2012, however, when the system switches to a method of counting the number of students who graduate in four years. The new method will adjust for transfers in and out of Forsyth, as well as other circumstances, she said.  

Derison said the switch will provide more consistency, but will likely cause the rates of Forsyth and all other counties to appear to decrease.
While the rate is important, Forsyth Schools Superintendent Buster Evans said even more so is the individual impact on students.

“SATs and high school completion is not just a high school issue, it’s not just a K-12 issue. It’s a community issue. It’s a family issue,” Evans said. “People who do not complete high school, their opportunities to make money and to succeed in life, what we call life chances, are seriously diminished compared to those who have high school completion, some college, college and graduate degrees.”

Evans said with the help of stakeholders, Forsyth can increase its graduation rate to 95 percent in two years. The rate is expected to reach 90 in 2011, according to system reports.

Next steps

In the next few weeks, the steering committee will begin forming a strategic plan based on the information acquired Friday, said Moon.

“We have an overview, like a 30,000-foot view,” Moon said after the meeting. “Now we take this information and we’ve got to dig down and figure out how to implement it and what will work.” 

Moon credited Donna O’Neal, a facilitator of the program, with helping the steering committee make PROPEL a reality. 

O’Neal, director of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, said Forsyth’s response has been the largest she’s ever seen. Friday’s turnout, she said, foreshadows PROPEL’s success.

“When you can focus and leverage all of these entities and focus on one thing, a goal of increasing the graduation rate, it’s going to happen, because these committed people have decided they’re going to do this,” she said. “These committed people are determined.”