LEWISTON, Maine — The list of students not in school gets forwarded to Lewiston High School Principal Gus LeBlanc every day. Some have missed a lot of days.
The 121 seniors who didn’t graduate with their class last year missed an average of 82 days. “That’s half the school year,” School Superintendent Bill Webster said.
In June 2011, 256 seniors completed their high school education in four years. That was 68 percent of the class.
The year before, 66 percent completed school in four years, giving Lewiston the fourth-lowest rate in Maine.
In 2008, 60 percent completed high school in four years.
“We’ve made great progress in the last five years,” Webster said. “We recognize the significant challenges that remain.”
Of the 32 percent who didn’t finish last year, some are attending high school for a fifth year. Some are continuing their education through Lewiston Adult Education. Others simply quit.
Last year, 91 high school students (6.6 percent of the total) dropped out.
When it comes to predicting who will not complete high school on time or drop out, two red flags are raised in a student’s early years: poor reading comprehension and poor attendance, LeBlanc said.
“If kids learn to not attend school when they’re in the elementary grade, that becomes a learned behavior ingrained in their lifestyle,” said LeBlanc, a former elementary school principal. “By the time they’re in high school, it’s difficult to change at that point.”
The profile of a student who didn’t complete high school and dropped out is a kid who doesn’t attend school — “a kid who’s had a history of a lack of academic success,” LeBlanc said. “Predominantly, they’re white. Predominantly, they’re male. Predominantly, they’re from low social-economic status.”
Poor attendance is a parental issue, he said.
“Parents have the greatest influence over whether kids attend or not,” LeBlanc said. “We really need to get parents on board to get their kids to attend school.”
Butch Pratt, Lewiston schools attendance manager, sees it firsthand, knocking on doors to find truant students.
“A lot of the truancy cases I follow, I’ve been chasing the same kids for five or six years,” he said. Their poor attendance began in the early grades.
Parents tell him they know their son or daughter should go to school, but they offer excuses, such as they needed a vacation or had to visit a grandparent.
“Often the parents, and their parents, didn’t complete high school,” Pratt said.
He and school administrators work with the families to try to convince them that attending is important.
“We’ve seen improvement with some,” Pratt said. “Some who missed 82 days, we get them to 40 days. That’s still a lot, but it’s better.”
Lewiston’s graduation and dropout rates are directly tied to poverty in Lewiston, to the culture in too many families that education is not a priority, to the fact that Lewiston is a service center, educators said.
Graduation rates in Falmouth and Cape Elizabeth are “wonderful,” LeBlanc said. “It’s not because the water’s better down there. Kids from affluent families get exposed to vocabulary, literature, to print. Kids of less affluent backgrounds — not because their parents don’t care — don’t have that enrichment.”
To help more students graduate, Lewiston has expanded programs. “But to tackle this problem around non-completers and dropouts, you can’t focus on the high school or middle school,” LeBlanc said. “It has to be systematic.”
That system is under construction, the superintendent said, with a growing number of early childhood programs for preschoolers and intervention programs for elementary and middle school students.
Among the new initiatives in the upcoming budget proposal are a preschool center at the Multi-Purpose Center; an expansion of Lewiston Academy, an in-house, after-school program; and creation of an alternative program that could hold up to 300.
Lewiston has also started a new pilot project that partners with a private school, Poland Spring Academy in Poland. That program could help some students who struggle in a big-school environment, Webster said.
Other steps include expanding summer school for seventh- and eighth- graders, “so we can identify kids at risk, work with them and get them caught up before they start the high school,” said Susan Martin, director of the English Language Learning Office.
Another change Lewiston has made is no longer suspending students who misbehave. They need discipline, but they need to be in school, Webster said.
At Montello Elementary, suspended students attend an in-house suspension program where they do school work.
“In the past, those students would have been home, or unsupervised, or with a parent who isn’t focused on education,” Webster said. “They’re now staying in school.”
He said he wants to expand the in-house suspension to other schools.
Students who didn’t complete high school in four years include homeless students, and students suffering from depression and other mental health issues.
Another group is immigrant students, mostly Somali, learning to speak English. English language learners make up 12 percent of the group that did not complete high school in four years, while 88 percent are native English speakers.
Lewiston High has 84 ELL students who have been in the country fewer than five years. “If English is not your first language, graduating in four years in most cases would mean giving you a diploma versus holding you to standards,” Martin said.
“And we have not lowered our standards,” Webster said. “If you are going to get a Lewiston High diploma, you have met the requirements.”
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