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Forsyth officials plan to 'PROPEL' graduation rate
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An 88 percent graduation rate is nothing to scoff at. Still, Forsyth County Schools can improve, say system and community officials.

“We are always looking to do better,” said Jason Branch, South Forsyth High School principal. “Every student should graduate from high school and that’s our goal.”

Branch is among the educators and community leaders who have launched PROPEL, or Pathways for Reaching Opportunities in Preparing for Excellence in Life.

The initiative is a joint effort of the school system and the Cumming-Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce.

“The school system is a primary driver behind our continued economic success, both in terms of why people want to live here ... and why people want to move their companies here,” said James McCoy, chamber president.

Chamber Chairman Tracy Moon said the idea spawned from his service on the SAT 2400 Challenge board, which worked to improve local scores on national college entrance tests such as the SAT and ACT.

“I said, ‘Look, we need to think about graduation rates,’” Moon said. “It’s very similar to the SAT 2400 initiative.”

He said first up was a research stage involving the community and key stakeholders. Then, organizers “formulate a plan which will be presented to the school board.”

PROPEL’s steering committee began laying the groundwork in February, recruiting Donna O’Neal to facilitate the process.

O’Neal was involved in the 85/10 project, which identified schools with a 2008 graduation rate of at least 85 percent, following an increase of at least 10 percentage points over a five-year period.

McCoy said O’Neal has “worked in communities around Georgia that are interested in increasing their graduation rate.”

In Hall County, Gainesville High School reported a 73 percent graduation rate for 2009, according to the state Department of Education, while county high schools ranged from 77 percent to 87 percent.

Branch said the process is helping the group learn what’s being done throughout the state and nation, as well as exploring how to “take the one student out of 10 who is not completing high school and make school more relevant to them.”

After establishing goals, the committee began interviewing students, parents and teachers from several middle and high schools.

Cindy Salloum, the district’s director of secondary education, said the interviews provided insight into fears and obstacles.

From them, the committee identified four likely focus areas: community/family involvement and culture; relevance of programs offered to the real world; transitions from elementary to middle and middle to high school; and identification of at-risk learners.

This summer, the steering committee will develop a plan and communicate the process to the community. The plan will be finalized in September and in the schools by October.

Not all schools will use every portion, said School Superintendent Buster Evans.

“Every school is going to have to do what works for them,” he said. “It’s a gradual and continuous process for improvement and not something that we do once or all at one time.”

Evans said PROPEL will incorporate business and community support in the effort to change students’ mind-sets about the importance of a diploma.

“By bringing our school people together with people in the community, we can take the opportunity to move from what is already a pretty high level to hopefully even a higher level,” he said.

Not every high school graduate will go to a four-year university, Moon said. But the committee wants students to know all their options, from training at local businesses and earning a specific certification to heading for technical college.

Local businesses will play a key role in the research.

“They’re one of the ones that reap the benefits,” Moon said. “We want a qualified work force.

“We’re trying to figure out a way for people to graduate with the skills that will help them throughout their lives.”

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