The symbiotic relationship between Walker County's public schools and the local community college will grow stronger during the new school year when the two partner for a new program, Launch Academy, offering dual enrollment to 50 students.

Those high school juniors and seniors — 25 from LaFayette and 25 from Ridgeland — will attend classes on the Georgia Northwestern Technical College campus. In addition to earning their high school diploma, graduates will earn one or more technical skills certificates and possibly an associates degree.

Addressing those attending the Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Tuesday, April 24, Walker County Schools Superintendent Damon Raines described how Launch Academy will be another tool in preparing today's students for tomorrow's world.

"Our goal is to get kids ready for work and for life," he said.

If graduation rates are the measure of an educator's success, Walker County has a graduation rate that is better than the statewide average and that continues to show steady improvement.

Compared to an 80.56 percent graduation rate for school systems throughout Georgia, 80.48 percent of high school seniors graduated from LaFayette and 90.8 percent from Ridgeland for a system-wide average of 85.42 percent.

For 2018, LaFayette expects 85 percent to graduate and Ridgeland projects a graduation rate of 91 percent.

While commendable, Raines said there is room for improvement.

"We don't have a 100 percent graduation — that's a failure," he said.

Not only that, but Raines noted that even as graduation rates from risen from 60 percent to 90 percent and more students are attending college, "we aren't better preparing our students for work and life."

That, he said, is what Walker Launch aims to do.

"We reached out to industry to identify how we can better prepare our students," the superintendent said.

Georgia offers $3 million grants to school districts to develop Career Academies, but Raines said implementing a program and construction of brick and mortar academies is normally a five-year process that costs $12-15 million.

"If we were to bond a college and career academy, it would take the full ESPLOST for one building," he said.

ESPLOST is a voter-approved 1 percent special purpose local optional sales tax that is collected over a five-year period and is earmarked for construction, technology upgrades and major maintenance. None of the proceeds can fund day-to-day operations or salaries.

Rather than build and staff a program-specific facility that could be outdated shortly after opening, Walker County has decided to partner with a technical college and draw on resources available through the University System of Georgia.

"It makes no sense for us to go out and build a traditional career academy," Walker County Schools Coordinator of Innovation Matt Harris said. "It makes much more sense to move students on (the GNTC) campus."

GNTC has labs, classrooms and faculty that these same high school upper classmen would utilize after gaining a high school diploma. Dual enrollment allows teenagers a head start on a chosen career path, particularly for those where hiring of a qualified applicant is a near certainty.

"Our aim is at high-demand jobs like welding, machining, computer networking, automotive, logistics, HVAC and healthcare," Harris said.

Classes necessary to meet state requirements for high school graduation, such as English or civics, will be taught by WCS teachers. GNTC staff will be instructors for the technical skills programs.

Four days a week, Monday through Thursday. students will attend classes devoted to a usual class curriculum. Fridays' focus will be developing soft skills such as learning punctuality and dependability, phone etiquette, critical thinking, customer service and how to communicate with managers and co-workers.

Raines said teaching financial literacy — learning to budget, plan for retirement, weighing benefit packages — will help graduates escape a life of living paycheck to paycheck. Students will also learn how to grow a job into a career.

Harris said it makes no sense to build a standalone career campus when Walker Launch instead is a partnership that expands and enhances GNTC.

Plans call for the use of GNTC's Building 500, centrally located and adjacent the campus library. Students will be bused daily to-and-from their home high school and will be allowed to continue participation in extra-curricular actives —including band and JROTC.

Already there is support from the municipalities, the Joint Development Authority, the Chamber of Commerce, area industries and schools of Walker County.

Local industries already committed to partnering with the program include Roper, CHI Memorial, EPB, Paladin and "we are also in conversation with ASTEC, Shaw, and some other smaller businesses," Raines said.

Harris said Georgia Tech will be involved in offering mentoring and helping with committees that combine educators with representatives from business and industry.

A collaborative program of the University System of Georgia established with the goal to make higher education more accessible to all Georgians, eCore makes textbooks and instructional material available in digital form that allows flexible scheduling, saves money and is a common platform used by 23 institutions statewide.

WCS will provide a laptop computer for every Walker Launch student so they can complete their GNTC and WCS classes online.

Cost of dual enrollment tuition is paid by the Georgia Department of Education and will not affect a student's Hope cap. Graduates will have full Hope grant eligibility when they leave high school.

Raines said the local school system will lose no state funding because Walker Launch participants are considered students at their home high school.

"We must be advocates for our kids and our goal is that this is something we can sustain into the future," he said.

Harris and Raines said the program will be selective. Students must apply and meet certain requirements to join Walker Launch. It will expand to include about 200 students.

Raines said he would like Walker County's initiative of crafting a partnership with the business community and a technical college to be viewed as a pilot program, one that be modified for use all across Georgia.

"I hope so," he said. "This is something that will be good for any community."

Mike O'Neal is assistant editor for the Walker County Messenger in LaFayette, Ga. He can be reached at the Messenger office at 706-638-1859 and by email at moneal@npco.com.