Dr. Katie Thomas

Dr. Katie Thomas talked about the efforts underway to organize Graduate Polk while Board Member Jane Hamlett listens in. (Kevin MyrickStandard Journal)

Organizing efforts are underway now for a new program in the Polk School District with one goal in mind: get the graduation rate at 100 percent.

As graduation rates over the past years have increased, the goal now is to get to where every senior gets a diploma. The problem, according to Polk County College and Career Academy CEO Katie Thomas, is one that school districts everywhere run into when facing down the graduation rate challenge.

When all the academic solutions are solved, what barriers are still there that keep students from finishing school?

Thomas has been put in charge of putting together a new program the school district looks to launch at the start of 2018 called Graduate Polk, or Grad Polk for short.

Earlier in the school year, Thomas and administrators went to a visit to Cobb County Schools to see a program they’ve started similar in scope, with the idea that by helping students control external factors getting in the way of their finishing their studies and moving onto two or four year degree programs, or jobs.

“There are various problems that can keep a kid from focusing on academics,” she said. “External factors like homelessness, or parents losing their job, the death of a parent or guardian, mental issues, just so many things that can get in the way of graduating.”

So as the school district looks to refocus their efforts on educating the whole child, the idea of Grad Polk is to work on helping students overcome the outside of the school building issues causing problems in their lives.

Thomas said the idea is to connect students to services they need within the school, rather than students having to seek services out on their own.

“We can do a lot of what we already want to do with this program because we already have resources in Polk County in One Door Polk,” Thomas said.

But it is going to be more than just connecting students with services.

Thomas said students will have access to clothes closets and showers if hygiene and clean outfits are a barrier to a student feeling comfortable at school. Mental health services are also set to be offered as well through Willowbrooke at Polk.

Mentoring, a food pantry, and even students to have access to social workers and even Department of Juvenile Justice officials when students are on probation.

“We’re calling it Graduate Polk because we’re going to help provide that structure to help make a student successful,” Thomas said. “The idea is to find ways to help our students break down those barriers in any way that we can.”

The Graduate Polk program ultimately will have hubs at Cedartown and Rockmart High Schools, but it won’t be just for freshmen through seniors.

Also, the school system is seeking to hire two new coordinators for each school to organize the Graduate Polk program on each side of the county.

Once those positions are filled, the new coordinators will have the role of not only helping with the final details of the Graduate Polk program, and then act as the go-to person for students.

A piece of the puzzle was solved as the program found its first partner in Willowbrooke at Tanner. See this week’s story on Page A8 for more on that incoming program.