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Coaching toward your cap and gown

The average graduation rate at this nation's high schools is about 75 percent, and for those who don't get a diploma, the statistics are grim:  Higher unemployment, lower salaries, and generally poorer health. But as NBC's Ron Mott reports, one state in the south is trying to coach itself to success.

At Ridgeland High School in rural north Georgia, roughly every other student doesn't graduate on time — if at all.

Sophomore Ronnie Goins is considered a dropout risk.

"I have three sisters that dropped out," he says. "Everyone's encouraging me (to graduate), my dad, my mom, they're really pushing me."

And so is his coach — his graduation coach. It's his job to push students to attend class, stay on top of their workload, even find tutors when necessary.

"We're really struggling on getting kids to believe they can graduate, says Ridgeland High School graduation coach Jason McKinney. "And a lot of them will be their first generation to graduate high school."

Georgia lags behind much of the nation in graduation rates, prompting the state to hire and train graduation coaches for every public high school.

"We need somebody in that school that this is their No. 1 job," says Georgia Superintendent of Schools Kathy Cox.

The question, of course, is will it work? It's a $16 million gamble this year in Georgia with some pretty daunting odds, because the No. 1 reason dropouts cite for giving up is they find school boring.

But there are exciting numbers at Decatur High outside Atlanta, where an unofficial graduation coach has worked for years.

Since 2003, graduation rates have jumped from 67 percent to 86 percent in the 2005-06 school year.

"I'm able to bring them to my office, remind them of what they've got inside, help them to identify things that they're good at, and continuously remind them of that," says Decatur coach Beth Allgood McKinnon.

She even makes house calls, inspiring senior Renita Boyce to keep her eyes on the prize.

"This is a graduation cap she told me to make, to always stay focused and think of this as my goal," says Boyce.

The goal is to get more students walking away from school with those caps on graduation day.