Getting kids to school may be half the battle, but keeping them focused on the goal line is also crucial. To that end, Georgia has introduced the Graduation Coach program, which could serve as a model for the nation. It allows each of the state's middle and high schools to hire a coach—usually a veteran teacher or guidance counselor—whose job it is to spot teens at risk and motivate and inspire them to push on. Coaches meet with the students about once a week during lunch hour or in study hall helping them smooth out difficulties and set priorities, whether it's nagging them to prep for tests or matching them up with tutors. "Time and again we found that an accumulation of small obstacles lead up to a high-schooler dropping out," says program manager Tom Roman. "The coaches help resolve those obstacles one by one." A collaboration between the Governor's Office, the DOE, and Communities in Schools (a network of nonprofit organizations dedicated to dropout prevention), the program has boosted the state's graduation rate from 71 percent to 79 percent. That may not sound like much, until you consider that last year coaches helped an additional 8,000 students get their high school diploma.
Peer pressure—the positive kind, that is—can also keep kids from derailing. Hoping to create a strong support network for teens, the Taco Bell Foundation for Teens is spending $4 million this year to sponsor Keystone Clubs at the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. Each group comprises 15 to 20 students committed to staying in school and supporting one another on the long journey to graduation day. To keep their eyes on the prize, members go to job fairs, visit colleges, and attend college application writing workshops. In addition to spreading the word on campus that dropping out is not an option, some Keystone Clubs have even produced public service announcements. "Through peer-to-peer interaction, they do a great job of encouraging teens to think not just about graduation, but beyond," says Sally George, director of the Taco Bell Foundation. "They're helping kids see that high school isn't an end point; it's a springboard."