When Shelby Christian failed the social studies section of the Georgia High School Graduation Test by a few points, she was offered a certificate of completion in lieu of her high school diploma.
But that wasn’t good enough for Christian, who refused to accept the certificate.
“I wanted to work for it,” Christian said. “I figured why not earn what I worked for for so long.”
Christian left Cass High School and enrolled at the new Bartow County Learning Center, where she plans to retake the test and receive her diploma this year. This fall, she plans to study cosmetology at Georgia Northwestern Technical College.
“I’m going to be so excited,” Christian said about receiving her high school diploma. “I’m going to love it.”
The 40 students enrolled in the alternative high school that opened in January all have stories like Christian's. Sophomore Brandon Freeman enrolled because he felt like his teachers at Cass High didn’t care about him.
“I wanted someone who would care and would help me graduate,” he said.
“I’m thrilled to death that she hasn’t quit coming. Kids make mistakes. We can’t give up on them.”
Freeman also was behind in his classes at Cass. Not only has he caught up, but he is now so far ahead that he will graduate this year. His plan is to major in computer science in college.
“It’s an outstanding program,” Freeman said. “It allows kids to not only catch up, but get ahead if they want.”
Cody Coffey, a senior, said he slacked off his first couple of years at Woodland High School, and recently he missed a lot of classes when he got sick. So he moved to the Learning Center and is hoping to graduate this year.
Learning at Their Own Pace
According to a report released in December 2010 by the National Center for Education Statistics, the national dropout rate for 2007-2008 was 3.5 percent. The report also said Georgia had a 65.4 percent graduation rate for 2007-2008.
One of the benefits of the alternative high school is that students can work at their own pace.
“I’m more focused, and I get more work done because there aren’t a lot of kids around you talking,” Coffey said.
But it can be difficult to move from a traditional classroom with a teacher to computer-based learning, Coffey said.
“It’s harder because they’re not talking to you as much,” Coffey said of his online teachers.
This month, Coffey committed to attend Chattahoochee Technical College. While he hasn't decided what he wants to study, he said he is leaning toward criminal justice.
Circumstances Play a Factor
A few girls, such as 10th-grader Alexis Trammell, got pregnant and decided to leave their traditional schools. The Bartow Learning Center gives them more flexibility by requiring only three hours per day in the classroom and allowing them to bring their babies with them.
“It will help out a lot when he’s here,” Trammell said.
Trammell and every other student are important to Larry Parker, a former school board member and now the center’s director.
“I’m thrilled to death that she hasn’t quit coming,” Parker said. “Kids make mistakes. We can’t give up on them.”
While some students at the Learning Center have transferred from regular schools, others are coming back after dropping out. In addition, 17 previously home-schooled students moved into the classroom because the economy has forced their mothers to join the workforce.
“I’m thrilled to death that kids are wanting to come back and get their education,” Parker said. “That’s what’s so encouraging about the explosion of this program.”
Center Looks Forward to Growth
And explode it did. Though the Bartow County Learning Center has been open just shy of two months, it has reached its cap and has 17 students on its waiting list. The center has 20 students in both its morning and afternoon classes. Parker said he would eventually like to offer a night session as well.
“Then we open up a door for those poor children who have to be breadwinners and work at Hardees or McDonald’s,” Parker said.
While the curriculum is computer-based, with the students’ teachers stationed throughout the country, the Learning Center has a mentor on staff to assist students with their classwork.
“They have their own teacher, but even in the personalized learning, sometimes it doesn’t register,” Parker said.
Education that Benefits the Community
Next year, a College and Career Academy is slated to open in the old Cass High School, where the Learning Center is housed.
It will enable Bartow County to provide highly qualified people for jobs at companies such as Toyo Tire North America. The county ended 2011 with a 10.5 percent unemployment rate, which dropped from 11.7 percent a year earlier, but continued to exceed the metro Atlanta, regional and state rates.
The program would be similar to other College and Career Academies open in Whitfield, Floyd, Rockdale and Coweta counties. In addition to providing a highly skilled workforce to help attract new business and industry, Floyd's program, one of the first charter technical centers, aims to improve the system's high school completion rate and give students a seamless transition to post-secondary training.
“It’s inspiring to see those kids taking college courses,” Parker said. “I think it’s a golden opportunity to help a lot of kids.”
This article is part of "Dispatches: The Changing American Dream," our ongoing series about how people in Cartersville are adapting to the challenges of life in the 21st century. You can find more Dispatches from across the country at The Huffington Post.