A majority of South Mississippi high school districts followed a statewide trend of increased graduation rates and decreased dropout rates, with several surpassing state and national averages.
A recent report by the Mississippi Department of Education revealed the state's graduation rate improved overall from 74.5 percent in the 2013-14 school year to 78.4 percent for 2014-15. The national average was 82 percent for 2013-14, the last year data was available.
Nine of the 16 districts in South Mississippi had graduation rates above the national average. Fourteen had rates above the state level, leaving only two schools in the region below it.
Bay ranks high
Bay-Waveland School District's 89.4 percent was the highest rate in South Mississippi. Hancock County was close behind at 89.2 percent, and Long Beach stood at 87.7 percent. Gulfport remained steady at 85.6 percent for both school years.
Bay-Waveland also had the second-highest graduation rate in the state for disabled students at 60.3 percent. Hancock County's graduation rate of 52.8 percent for disabled students ranked sixth in the state.
George County boasted the largest increase of all schools. It went from having a 68.6 percent graduation rate in 2013-24 to 82.3 percent in 2014-15.
Moss Point had the lowest graduation rate of all South Mississippi districts at 62 percent.
Long Beach schools Superintendent Carrolyn Hamilton said close attention to student performance makes a difference in how many students go on to graduate.
"We do a lot of tracking of individual students," she said. "We keep a close eye on how they're doing. If we see someone in trouble, we provide extra help and try to keep them motivated."
Some of that work is done outside school hours.
"Our teachers and even some of our students spend many hours after school identifying who needs help and in what area," she said.
Long Beach has academies for health science, law enforcement and teaching that keep students interested in pursuing a career outside of high school.
In the end, she said, it comes down to the staff.
"I credit their hard work more than anything, the principal, teachers and staff," she said.
Dropout rates down
The statewide dropout rate also went down, according to the MDE study. Mississippi's four-year dropout rate was 12.8 percent in 2014-15, from 13.9 percent the year before.
Districts in South Mississippi saw a similar decline.
Eleven of 16 districts had dropout rates below the state average. Ten districts showed a decline in their dropout rate from the year before.
Bay St. Louis, despite seeing an increase from a minuscule 1.7 percent dropout rate in 2013-14, still had the lowest dropout rate in South Mississippi at 3.4 percent. Long Beach with 5.6 and Pass Christian with 5.5 percent were close behind.
Vo-tech classes key
As the fourth-largest school district in the state, Harrison County's 2014-15 graduation rate was above the state average at 80.7 percent, up from 72.4 percent the year before. Since 2008, the graduation rate at Harrison County schools has gone up 15.8 percent. In 2012-13, the school had a 14.6 percent dropout rate. By the 2014-15 school year, that was down to 11.8 percent.
Superintendent Roy Gill explained one of the ways regional districts have managed to both increase graduation rates and decrease their dropout rates is an emphasis on vocational and other non-college-related courses.
"We're giving different options to our students. Not every child will go to college. We're better preparing them for the world of work," he said.
Vocational courses offer practical, non-college-related instruction. The Harrison County Career & Technical Education Center offers instruction in auto-service technology, construction, engineering, machine shop and welding, among other courses.
"Ten, fifteen years ago, everything was focused on going to college," Gill said. "That's not so much the focus anymore.
"There are some students that go straight into industry out of school and end up making more than those with a four-year degree."
Students instructed in vocational courses have an immediate impact on the community, he noted.
"We need those people. We have to have those students. Those are jobs we need people to perform."