State and local officials gathered early this week to celebrate the successful opening of the Mountain Education Charter High School in Dawson County that is operating out of Hightower Academy.
The Dawson County Chamber of Commerce welcomed State Representative Kevin Tanner, Dawson County District 1 Commissioner Sharon Fausett, Superintendent Damon Gibbs and others on Nov. 28 to the Hightower location.
Approved by the Dawson County Board of Education in July, the school is a self-paced public high school that grants regular Georgia high school diplomas.
The school began serving students locally in October and has around 25 students currently enrolled with the hopes of enrolling somewhere between 50-60 by the spring.
"We think eventually, and this is long range goals, we will be in that 75-100 students," said Tracy Sanford, assistant superintendent. "They have been gaining 4-5 kids pretty consistent every week."
The school has been advertising locally, but Sanford and Site Administrator Shannon Gable are convinced the word-of-mouth and local connections are key to being able to reach students who would benefit from the program.
"Those counselors in Dawson County High School are going back and contacting students that have dropped out and saying hey, here is another option for you," Sanford said.
"Our purpose is to keep those kids that are contemplating dropping out or those kids that need to work."
The state-chartered, SACS accredited public high school caters to non-traditional students by offering school hours in the evenings. The program runs from 4 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday.
Gibbs emphasized the fact that Hightower was helping serve nontraditional students, but only during regular school hours. Other systems had found success with evening programs and Dawson County saw the Mountain Education program as an opportunity to do the same.
There is no fee for students who enroll in the program full time.
"Those kids we are currently serving are good ambassadors for us," Gable said.
Other major benefits to the program include rolling enrollment and career counseling. Students can be between the ages of 16 and 21 and still be working towards a diploma. Every student also has a graduation coach and counselor.
Prior to this campus opening in Dawsonville, there were 13 operating around the state, including those in Forsyth, Lumpkin and Hall counties. A Bartow County site is set to open in January.
As many as 22 Dawson County students were already in the program, just in less convenient locations.
"There are great success stories coming out of the organization," Tanner said as he talked about other locations around the area.
"We are just another opportunity," Sanford said.
As soon as the program was established, the school began reaching out to Dawson County students who, for one reason or another, did not continue on to graduation last year.
Numbers released on Nov. 1 showed that the Class of 2016 at DCHS graduated 93.97 percent of its students-the highest percentage ever for a graduating class in Dawson County.
The Mountain Education Charter High School is designed to continue to up that number. The school's online system makes it accessible for students.
Beyond the online portion, students come in during early evening hours and have access to certified staff with low student-to-teacher ratios.
Around 95 percent of the staff at the Hightower location are teachers from Dawson County, either retired or currently employed.
The program is serving more than 3,000 students system wide and last year 368 students received diplomas, according to Gable and Sanford.