The list of the state’s high school graduation rates, made public last week, shows Wiscasset High School with the state’s worst graduation rate: 62 percent.
Fort Fairfield, in Aroostook County, was second lowest at 64 percent — the only other school lower than 70 percent. Lewiston was third at 71 percent.
“RSU 12 and Wiscasset High School are deeply concerned about our graduation rate and have been working to identify the contributing factors and address them,” Hawkins said in an email. “The changing demographic of our student population — in particular, the increasing rates of poverty, homelessness and mobility in and out of the school — is a primary factor that we are working to address.”
Somerville-based RSU 12 is a far-flung, eight-town rural school unit stretching from Palermo to Westport Island. With a population of 3,731, Wiscasset is the district’s largest municipality.
The eight towns combined to form RSU 12 in 2008.
A year later, the Wiscasset High School graduation rate decreased from 80 percent to 78 percent, and there was a sharp decline a year after that — to 66.5 percent.
Because Wiscasset has the only high school in the system, it must accept students who departed other high schools.
“Some of these students come to us well into their high school career after unsuccessful experiences at other area schools, schools that have the option of disinviting students who aren’t on track to graduate in a timely manner,” Hawkins wrote. “It is our legal obligation to accept and enroll these students and to assist them as best we can in acquiring a high school credential, even if that results in them needing an additional year or two of high school.”
Principal Deborah Taylor pointed out that students in seven of eight RSU 12 towns can choose their high school, and many live far from Wiscasset.
“A fair number go to Erskine Academy, Cony [High School, in Augusta] or Hall-Dale [High School, in Farmingdale],” Taylor said. “For those who are unsuccessful, these students can become ‘disinvited.’ We get second- and third-year students who are behind the 8-ball. Some students don’t even return, but Wiscasset High School is on record as being the home school.”
Hawkins and Taylor know RSU 12 still must respond to the poor numbers.
One way: Reach out to junior high students and their parents and urge them to attend Wiscasset High School in the first place.
“We go to parents’ nights at those schools, and attend meetings,” Taylor said. “We’re also reaching out to building administrators and the special education staffs.”
Taylor added that Wiscasset High School has an active student-assistance team.
“It allows us very early on to identify students at risk,” she said. “The earlier we can identify these kids, the easier it is to get them back on track.”
“We have an active dropout prevention committee that includes representatives from the school board, community, faculty, administration and students,” Hawkins said. “This committee is examining the data on our dropouts, identifying needed interventions and working with sending schools to improve communication and early identification of students at risk for not graduating.”
RSU 12 also has implemented numerous in-school and after-school credit “recovery interventions” to assist students who have gotten behind, Hawkins added. The school unit also is working to acquire grant funds to support additional programs to build aspirations, assist in high school completion and promote college access, he said.
The school is hoping to collaborate with Jobs for Maine Graduates by bringing the program to work with some of the most at-risk students at the high school, Hawkins said.
Mary Ellen Bell, a social studies teacher who has been teaching at the school more than 25 years, believes literacy is a key concern. Students are glossing over words or phrases they don’t understand, she said.
“Students are not coming to us with very strong reading skills,” said Bell, recently elected by students as Teacher of the Year for the second quarter.
Bell added that such studies as the one just released by the state must look beneath the numbers.
“Rather than just numbers,” she said, “we need a breakdown. We just lost two students whose parents moved. What is considered a dropout is not always the whole picture.”