The Hall County school system has graduated 15 percent more seniors than ever before in the past five years.
School officials say the reason is Lanier Charter Career Academy, a nontraditional high school that first opened for credit recovery in 2004.
Though the school doesn't have a very high graduation rate, less than 30 percent, that's 30 percent more students than would have graduated if the school didn't exist, officials contend.
"Lanier's almost 400 graduates over the past four years represent students who, prior to that opportunity, would very likely have dropped out of high school," Superintendent Will Schofield said.
Since 2006, the year before Lanier Charter opened, the school system's graduation rate has increased to 82.1 percent from 67.5 percent. Prior to this year, the academy was an alternative school for both Hall County and Gainesville students with disciplinary issues.
But Lanier Charter doesn't have the best reputation, despite its intentions.
"We do have students placed here for discipline," Principal Cindy Blakley said. "That proportion of students is a small number, but unfortunately all students that attend that school are painted with that brush."
Those in the alternative program are the only students who do not have a choice about attending Lanier Charter. But for the other 80 percent of students at the school, it's an opportunity both for second chances and for credit advancement.
"The vast majority choose to be there, and they made the right decision. There are some times when we have a student who is significantly over age, does not have a chance of graduating and is hanging around and not being a value add for himself or for the school," Schofield said. "We tell them, ‘We need to send you somewhere where you can waive the seat-time requirements, get enough credits to graduate, or work on a GED and post-secondary option.' That number of students is incredibly small."
He said "no bones about it," if a student is unsuccessful in their high school and they don't have the opportunity or encouragement to get a GED or diploma, chances are they will drop out and will never be heard from again.
The more well-known programs at Lanier Charter are for students who attend other Hall County schools as their home school, Blakley said. These are the students who come to take classes in different career, technical or agricultural pathways such as culinary arts, construction, hospitality, health care science and marketing.
Students in these programs run Bistro at the Oaks, Corner Café, meeting and events rooms and the Design 360 advertising and promotion business.
"Most of the business comes from outside of our school, so students learn how to operate not just from the production end of things but also how to interact with the public and deal with requests for changes a customer may have, how to respond to customers who are dissatisfied and to graciously accept compliments when those come," Blakley said.
Lanier Charter is also home to Project Success and Project Search, both programs for special-needs students who want to learn job skills. Some are able to complete their diploma requirements while others have completed high school and want to get placed in the working world.
Students who come to Lanier Charter at age 17 or older with 10 or fewer high school credits have two opportunities. They can either choose to stay in a regular diploma program or enter the pre-GED track, done with help through Lanier Technical College.
"It's an opportunity for students who are either recovered dropouts, or sometimes we have students who have made the decision to leave school ... because they see they are not making as many gains at high school as they would like," Blakley said. "They get behind academically, sometimes drop out and come back and find themselves looking at a graduation date in their future that they struggle with."
She said these students are technically considered dropouts as far as federal Adequate Yearly Progress requirements go, but the encouragement to get a GED and possibly enroll at Lanier Tech is still there.
Students can also dual-enroll at Lanier Tech through the career academy's Project Forward program.
"For some of those students, they're probably not going to end up getting those credits before they age out of being able to attend the public school system," Blakley said. "For some of those students who've been struggling all along, we hope that's not going to happen. Rather than them just quitting or getting a GED, we hope they minimally complete their GED and at least enter to get a certificate program at Lanier Tech."
This group of students is one for which the school receives AYP test data.
"For most of the students we have here at the charter school, we would love to have their AYP accountability. It would help us look more like we are, which is a school that serves all the way from honors and (Advanced Placement) students to students who struggle," Blakley said. "In a given year, our accountability scores are only based on one-third of the students we see."
Other data for AYP comes from some students in the alternative school and students in the school of choice.
"Those students come and they're here for a set length of time ... and then they return to their home school program," Blakley said. "For accountability rating and AYP, those students are ours and we do our best to get those students back on track so they can be as successful on those high stakes tests as they need to be. Typically students that struggle with home disciplinary issues ... they're struggling academically as well."
Those with Lanier as their home school are usually students who dropped out of their original high school and want to go to Lanier Charter as a school of choice.
"Typically we see them as sophomores, juniors or even seniors," Blakley said. "Depending on their work schedule they need to have a little flexibility with when they're taking their classes."
Schofield said there is no badge of shame in getting a GED or a special education diploma, and in his mind, these are success stories no matter what state calculations say.
"Between 40 and 50 percent of these kids (at Lanier Charter) ended up getting traditional diplomas," he said. "They got them late and they got them after the fact, but they got them."