When it comes to the classroom, the statistics recorded by the state are more than just numbers on paper. They represent individual children and teens, who for good or bad are tested on a regular basis to see how they’re doing.

The state also provides numbers on graduation rates, and those who fail to reach the end goal of earning their diplomas and going on to work or gain higher degrees.

So when a while back the state reported Polk School District’s graduation rate, educators at first weren’t exactly satisfied with the figures but overall felt there continues to be improvement year after year as senior classes crossing the stage at Cedartown and Rockmart High Schools increase in size.

Then after what officials read online at a competing publication, they took a negative review of their performance and decided to make something positive out of it.

Superintendent Laurie Atkins said that criticisms aside, the rate wasn’t bad for 2018.

The graduation rate statewide was at 82 percent for the year, and in comparison the combined rate for Polk School District sat at 81.3 percent.

“That’s not anything to laugh about,” she said. “That’s pretty good to only be seven-tenths of a percentage point away from the state. Rockmart High School met the state at 82, and Cedartown High was at 80.8.”

However, she wants to make sure the school district should and can do more to ensure they try and retain students to finish their educations, and have come up with new ways to do just that.

“It raised our hackles a little bit, but that’s what you want. Because when you get your hackles raised, you tend to do something about it,” Atkins said. “…I’m as competitive as anyone in this room, and I’m very proud of our schools. But we decided that we’re going to do something about it, and we’re going to do it in an ethical manner that is beneficial and informative to our parents so they can make good decisions, alternate decisions to dropping out of school.”

Additionally of note, the graduation rate for students with disabilities affects the graduation rate since they don’t finish on a traditional timeline of K-12 education. Special Education students are able to continue their education until they are 21, but the district has been working to increase the graduation rate among the student population for the past three years as part of a state program.

Some state recalculations are needed as well in the program, which would increase the students with disabilities graduation rate up to 66 percent, school officials reported.

Lots of good ideas were proposed by Cedartown and Rockmart High School administrators to fixing the problem, and those coalesced into new forms students will have to sign and review before they decided to end their education early.

It sets up a dropout prevention program that puts in place steps that students will have to take before they can drop out of school, like looking at alternatives like free and paid online schooling options

She let Assistant Superintendent Katie Thomas take over a lot of the explanation of how Polk School District is trying to curtail the dropout rate further by making students sit down and after fully explaining what it means to leave high school, also provide different options.

“Right now, our system is doing more with Grad Polk Student Success Centers at each high school to keep students in school,” Thomas said.

She pointed to programs like the two-year Upward Bound program for first generation future college students to help them prepare for life on the university level, with 53 participants at both high schools enrolled. There’s the Gear Up program with Kennesaw State University that is partnering with Polk School District again to take upward of 50 students who are homeless or in foster care starts with a 12-week intensive mentoring program and follows participants through their first year of college after they graduate, and students are eligible for laptops after the program.

Yet even with the help, Thomas admits that students still can fall through the cracks. She pointed to one student who was only three credits away from graduating she and other administrators were discussing before the November school board regular session. That student was also just hours away from being homeless.

“We’re very connected to our students and the situations they find themselves in, and not only are we dealing with a kid trying to earn credits but also trying to deal with homeless students who are trying to live,” Thomas said. “And by living I mean having food to put in their mouths and a roof over their heads.”

There are lots of reasons why a student might stop coming to school, and be noted in the records as a dropout. Some have come to the country with their parents and then subsequently returned back home to Mexico or Central America, and not report they’ve left.

Many find themselves behind in their studies and unable to catch up for a variety of reasons. Top among them is students needing to help make ends meet in the household, and work therefore takes a priority over school. Others have hardship issues, such as being effectively homeless that prevent them from graduating with their peers.

“We have to provide a reason why a student drops out,” Thomas said.

No matter the reason, administrators want to do what they can case-by-case to stem the flow of students leaving high school before they finish.

This is one of the goals of the Graduate Polk program, which Thomas told school board members previously has already seen success in getting students back on track with their education and earning diplomas, with more on the way.

“We go home and we sleep well at night going home knowing we do as much as we can for our kids,” Thomas said.

The new packet and intensive program within the schools provides students with options, but they still have the choice to end their schooling without finishing up the work.

Thomas said the options in the new packet for students who decide they are going to leave include giving them options like Graduate Polk or the Georgia Connections Academy that provide children with options either locally or online, or Mountain Ed Charter High School in Bartow County, for instance.

“We’re trying to give students options that work best for them,” Thomas said.

The hopes are that through forms, programs and more they won’t just fix a problem with reporting on student numbers of those who graduate or dropout of school, but also to ensure that students aren’t just being left behind when they decide to quit school but have chances to complete their education.