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Graduation Coaches Help Georgia Students Cross The Finish Line

Korey Thomas just graduated from Henry County High, near Atlanta. Three years ago, though, he was failing his classes.

The US high school graduation rate is at an all-time high. But why? NPR Ed partnered with 14 member stations around the country to bring you the stories behind that number. Check out the whole story here. And find out what's happening in your state.

Korey Thomas is a polite and friendly 18-year-old who's just graduated from Henry County High, near Atlanta. Three years ago, though, he was failing his classes.

"When I got all the speeches about paying attention in ninth grade and all that, I did not pay attention to that," he says. "I was just goofing off and I messed up in a couple subjects."

There were distractions: skateboarding, girls, music. Thomas also has diabetes, which can cause him to miss class.

When Thomas was a ninth-grader, he was on the verge of joining the 28 percent of Georgia students who don't make it to graduation.

That year, a teacher at his school named David Harvey started tracking Thomas' grades. Harvey is the school's graduation coach, providing personal and academic support to students who are at risk of dropping out. The concept is similar to a guidance counselor, but coaches work with one group of students from ninth grade all the way through graduation.

Georgia's graduation coach program began in 2006, and, by many accounts, it made a difference. The state's graduation rate spiked over the next few years, until state officials defunded the program in 2010 in the midst of the economic downturn.

But Henry County High has kept its coaches by partnering with a nonprofit organization. Today the graduation rate in the county is 78 percent; the state average is just 72 percent.

Thomas remembers the day he met Harvey:

"He was like, 'My sole job is to make sure you're on that stage and you graduate,' " Thomas says. "He told me that the first day that I met him, and he's had the same attitude since."

Harvey helped him enroll in "credit recovery" classes, designed to help struggling students catch up, when Thomas fell behind. The coach constantly checked up on him, making sure he was doing homework and turning in assignments.

"Sometimes he would be on top of me more than my own mother would," Thomas recalls.

Harvey worked with Thomas' teachers, making sure he could catch up if he had to miss class for health reasons.

Today, Thomas is diploma-bound and applying to colleges. He also has a job at a local jazz club.

Thomas says Harvey showed him that someone at school cared about his success: "If I didn't have someone like him to keep me on track, I wouldn't be where I am right now."

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