DEER ISLE, Maine — For the third year in a row, Maine’s high school graduation rate has risen, and continues to meet federal guidelines.
The four-year graduation rate for the 2011-2012 school year was 85.34 percent, according to data compiled by the state Department of Education and released Monday. That’s a rise of more than 1.5 percent in the past year, and nearly 5 percent since 2009.
“It’s hard for us to say at the state level what is driving [the improved rate], other than we know schools are focusing on this issue, and a lot of work is being done at schools around the state,” said Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen, who announced the graduation data at Deer Isle-Stonington High School on Monday.
Under the guidance of Principal Todd West, that school has seen a meteoric rise in its graduation rate, from a low of 58 percent in the ’08-’09 school year to 94 percent last year.
After releasing the new data, Bowen took a tour of the school with West and state Rep. Walter Kumiega, D-Deer Isle, and spoke with students and teachers to tease out the practices that have helped Deer Isle-Stonington succeed.
In the past, West has said that a wide range of initiatives led to improved graduation and dropout rates at his school. But he added that two programs in particular have helped students succeed: One is the availability of a staff member before, during and after school to offer personalized help to individual students. The other is the creation of a Student Assistance Team, which assesses each student at the high school eight times a year. He said a student doesn’t go a single month without his or her progress being evaluated by staff.
While the state has exceeded the federal graduation rate guideline of 83 percent, not all the data released Friday was positive news for Maine schools. Of Maine’s 133 high schools, more than a third did not reach the federal guideline, and more than 40 percent saw no improvement in the graduation rate from last year.
There also are striking gaps between some groups of students, the most stark of which are the income-based difference between free or reduced lunch receivers and nonreceivers — 75 percent and 93 percent, respectively — and the gap between special education students and students outside that program — 70 percent and 88 percent, respectively.
There also is a 4 percentage-point gender gap, which Bowen said mirrors trends across the country. In Maine last year, girls graduated at a rate of 87 percent, with boys at 83 percent.
Maine’s publicly funded private schools continue to fare better than its public schools, with a graduation rate of 91.5 percent, versus 84.7 percent.
In Deer Isle, Bowen commended West and his faculty for the dramatic turnaround at Deer Isle-Stonington High School. He said he was visiting the school as part of a statewide tour of successful schools, with the goal of discovering best practices and exporting them to other towns.
The data also included the state’s dropout numbers, which were essentially the same as last year’s: In the ’11-’12 school year, 1,884 students dropped out of high school, or about 3 percent. Last year, 1,991 students dropped out.
Gov. Paul LePage also weighed in on the news of Maine’s generally improved graduation rate.
“I have been criticized by some who think all I have to say is bad things about Maine’s schools,” the governor wrote in a press release. “Let me be the first to give credit where it’s due. Our teachers and our schools are making progress on graduation rates and I applaud that. I will not rest, though, and I know they won’t, either, while we still have almost 2,000 students a year dropping out.”
While graduation and dropout rates are important, they aren’t the only data sets used to measure the relative success of Maine’s schools.
Bowen said the state collects lots of information from schools, including standardized test scores, attendance numbers and more. But he said the department needed to do better at analyzing data collectively to get the fullest possible picture of Maine’s education practices.
“We’re not doing a good enough job at the department of looking at the mix of indicators to see where there’s variability,” he said. “If you took the graduation rate data and looked at it against the test score data, in some places you’d see they move in parallel, in other places you’re going to have schools that have low test scores and high graduation rates. So there you’d have some concerns about the students who are graduating: Are they really prepared to go on to a post-secondary career?”
Gov. LePage’s proposed two-year budget flat-funds the state’s share of education spending, while other measures, such as a proposed requirement that districts pay off half of teachers’ retirement costs, may result in communities coming up short in their school budgets.
Bowen said that funding is always a concern, but that Deer Isle-Stonington was an example of how a school can see great improvements without huge increases in education funding.
“One of the lessons we take from what’s happened here is how much was done within the existing resources of the school,” he said. “This school was eligible for a School Improvement Grant, did not get that grant, and did not get a big chunk of money to do what it’s done over the years.”
Rep. Kumiega — a former school board member in Deer Isle — said he commended West and his faculty’s hard work, but said a drop in state subsidy would concern him.
“I think it’s one thing to make do with what you have, it’s another to try to make do with less,” he said. “The Legislature has a lot of work to do just to maintain.”
For his part, West said he was encouraged by the numbers at his high school, but wasn’t done with efforts to improve.
Our ultimate goal is to ensure that each student who enters our school earns a diploma: 100 percent graduation rate and zero percent dropout rate,” he said.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.