Anthonio Hawkins expected to drop out of Anniston High School.
Hawkins routinely missed class. He didn't take his course work seriously.
The high school staff took notice, focused on his needs and provided encouragement.
Hawkins, now 19 years old, walked out of Anniston High holding his diploma in May.
"It was very challenging and there were times when I wanted to quit," Hawkins said. "Without their support, I don't know where I would be now."
According to Anniston school system figures, 81 percent of Anniston High's 2015 senior class graduated, 129 students in all. Just two years ago, that graduation rate was at 58 percent — the lowest in Calhoun County and far below the state average.
Anniston school officials say a focus on working with parents and the court system to reduce chronic absenteeism has kept students in class and helped more graduate. The emphasis on tracking and addressing chronic absenteeism is a practice more U.S. schools have adopted to improve graduation rates in recent years, some education policy advocates say.
Yolanda McCants, Anniston school improvement coordinator, said a program the system adopted at the start of the last school year helped lead to the jump in graduates. Called TEAM Believe, the program included education for students and parents on the importance of attendance, incentives for students to attend class and better monitoring of chronic absenteeism in the entire school district.
"The intensity of our focus on attendance has increased," McCants said. "I'm very pleased with the results."
McCants said that intense focus has included home visits with parents and the use of an automated call system. The system calls parents in the morning if their child is reported absent for the day.
"An automated call goes out to parents that says your child is not here," McCants said.
McCants said the system has also participated more in the early warning court program through juvenile probation services. All students between 5 and 17 years old are required by state law to attend school, McCants said. Parents are warned they can be arrested for failing to keep their children in school, she said.
"We tell them that it's the law," McCants said.
Jessica Cardichon, senior director for policy and advocacy for Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington D.C.-based education policy advocacy organization, said chronic absenteeism is one of the main causes of lower graduation rates across the country.
"Obviously, students that are not in school fall more behind, then there is less engagement and it's a domino effect," Cardichon said.
Cardichon said tracking students who are routinely absent is more effective than just taking daily school attendance.
"You may not think you have an absentee problem with just daily attendance," Cardichon said. "It might show you have 90 percent daily attendance, but that might not be the same kids there every day."
Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works, an education policy nonprofit that advocates for the role attendance plays in academic success, said states have accelerated attempts to reduce chronic school absenteeism in the last three years.
"Student information systems that can track data for each kid, in real time, is relatively new for schools," Chang said. "In the past, about 15 years ago, schools only used paper and pencil attendance and only tracked students who were there for each day."
Chang said chronic absenteeism is one of the main causes of low graduation rates and yet is one of the easiest problems to address.
"You're not creating new programs, you're just making sure students are there for what you're already investing in," Chang said.
McCants said that during the upcoming school year, staff will build on the attendance program and build better relationships with students and parents. Those better relationships could involve helping students without reliable transportation, more home visits with staff and greater communication with parents.
"We're now trying to see and address any barriers that any parents or guardians might come upon so there won't be any barriers to students reaching their full potential," McCants said.
Hawkins plans to enlist in the U.S. Army Military Police Corps, something he doesn't think he would have done had McCants and other school staff not worked with him.
"They kept working with me to help me succeed in life," Hawkins said.