North Hall High School cheerleaders, band members and students painted in school colors loudly announced Gov. Sonny Perdue's entrance into a packed gym Tuesday morning. and everyone in the school rose for a standing ovation.
Perdue stopped by the school to congratulate the students for earning one of the top graduation rates in the state - 95 percent.
The governor and State Schools Superintendent Brad Bryant also announced the state's graduation rate rose to 80.8 in 2010, which is an increase of two percentage points over last year. North Hall was the first of three schools to get a surprise visit Tuesday by the governor.
"You are the reason I've been involved in education the last eight years," Perdue said over claps, cheers and the standing ovation. "North Hall knows about winning on the ball field, but you also know about winning in the classroom, which is why I came to celebrate."
Perdue continued the analogy of football victories, saying a high school diploma is the "first key" to success in life.
"A lot of teams want to win, but if they don't practice, they aren't successful," he said. "To play in the Friday night lights, Saturday game days or even on Sundays, you have to apply yourself, and you've done that."
Perdue compared the graduation rate to the 2002-2003 school year, the first one he had influence on as governor. North Hall increased from 75 percent in 2003 to 95 percent in 2010.
"Eight years passes quickly. In eight years, you all could be out of college and maybe parents," he said.
"Eight years ago, we graduated more than 65,000 students, but 23,000 didn't have the opportunity and fell through the cracks. You don't get to play when you drop out in the game of life."
In 2010, about 92,000 students graduated from Georgia's schools, and more than 18,000 students were dropouts, decreasing the total by about 5,000 students.
"Less than 6 percent of jobs will take you if you don't have a high school diploma," Perdue told the students.
"It's more and more competitive as we see the flattening of the world and growing international powers."
Perdue presented North Hall Principal Joe Gheesling with a plaque for "The Governor's Graduation Rate Challenge," along with a $3,000 check and graduation rate challenge T-shirts for all the seniors to meet 95 percent again.
"That's something to celebrate. Thank you for doing your part to raise the statewide effort and setting an ambitious goal," Perdue said. "Seniors, you don't want to go backwards. The bar is at 95 percent, so make sure you pull your team across the line. I know you can do it."
Perdue and Bryant climbed into a helicopter on North Hall's football field and took off for two more schools.
They visited Eagle's Landing High School in McDonough, which increased from 74 percent in 2003 to 90 percent in 2010, and Glynn Academy in Brunswick, which increased from 56 percent in 2004 to 80 percent in 2010.
State Sen. Butch Miller, Rep. Doug Collins, Rep. Carl Rogers and the county school board members showed up in support.
"We've had economic challenges and many other challenges, but we take it on and overcome it," Gheesling said. "This is a historic event for North Hall, and I saw the students appreciate the governor taking time to visit. I can see they are excited as we are, and we have the finest graduation coach in the state. I can't overstate her impact."
It all comes down to personal attention, said North Hall's graduation coach Jennifer Rudeseal.
"There are a lot of things we do on an individual basis depending on the needs of the student. It's all about figuring out what works for them, which could include tutoring or credit recovery," she said. "Mostly, it's about the relationship we build. If they feel like someone in school cares, that plays a big part."