AUGUSTA — Maine’s high school graduation rate has shown significant improvement for the third straight year.
Figures released Monday show that the four-year graduation rate for 2012 was 85.3 percent.
The rate was 83.8 percent in 2011, 82.8 percent in 2010 and 80.4 percent in 2009. Prior to that, Maine calculated the graduation rate a different way that is not comparable.
Statewide, 13,036 students graduated out of 15,276 who started high school four years earlier. The figures represent 133 high schools, including one charter school — the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in Fairfield — and the town academies that enroll at least 60 percent publicly funded students.
Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen said there are too many students not graduating on time, and sizeable gaps remain between different groups of students. But he said the 5 percentage point rise since 2009 and much greater increases at some schools are signs of meaningful progress.
“We’re on an upward trend, and we’re very interested to see what schools are doing so we can share those best practices,” Bowen said in an interview.
Bowen spent Monday at Deer Isle-Stonington High School, which has increased its graduation rate from 58 percent to 94 percent since 2009.
Staff there told him their success is due to measures such as starting professional learning communities, in which teachers share what works for them, and creating a student assistance program in which each student is matched with a faculty adviser.
At Cony High School in Augusta, where the graduation rate increased from 71.4 percent in 2010 to 85.8 percent in 2012, guidance director Helen Renko said the school’s “4-by-4” schedule has been a major factor.
Rather than taking eight yearlong classes, Cony students have four classes per semester. Renko said that gives them less to manage at once and allows them to retake classes sooner if they fail them.
“You get fewer electives, but if the goal is to graduate, it’s very easy to do without burdening them with eight classes at a time,” Renko said. “It’s much easier to say, ‘You do four now and four later.’”
Renko also credited the work of Cony’s reintegration specialist, who since September 2010 has been working with students who are habitually truant or returning from suspension.
Seventy-five of Maine’s high schools, or 56 percent, improved their graduation rate from 2011 to 2012, but that leaves a large remainder that did not. About 36 percent of high schools did not meet the threshold of 83 percent set in federal accountability standards.
All three of Regional School Unit 2’s high schools — Hall-Dale High School in Farmingdale, Monmouth Academy and Richmond High School — saw their graduation rates drop in 2012.
Monmouth Academy had a roughly 12-point decline in two years, from 97.1 percent to 85.4, and Richmond High School declined 9 points, from 83.3 to 74.3 percent.
Hall-Dale had a one-year decline from 82.7 in 2011 to 81.7 percent in 2012.
RSU 2 Superintendent Virgel Hammonds said it doesn’t take many students to skew the numbers at small high schools. Monmouth Academy graduated 41 of 48 students last year, and Richmond graduated 26 of 35.
Hammonds said each school had some students with personal struggles who graduated outside the four-year window that counts for federal accountability.
“For us it’s not because kids aren’t prepared, it’s because our kids are running into some real-life situations that make things more complicated, and life happens,” Hammonds said.
Dean Collins, guidance director at Madison Area Memorial High School, also talked about the challenges students often bring to school with them, and he said the school may have lucked out somewhat with its class of 2012. Madison’s graduation rate was 93.9 percent, up from 80 percent in 2011.
Collins said the school is seeing success in the second year of its advisory program, in which students are matched with faculty members who make sure they stay on track.
The graduation rate has fluctuated widely at Maranacook Community High School in Readfield: 83.5 percent in 2010, 76 percent in 2011 and 88 percent in 2012.
Donna Wolfrom, superintendent of RSU 38, said a lot of that is related to Phoenix House, a residential substance abuse treatment facility for adolescents. Phoenix House residents are enrolled as Maranacook students and count against the school’s statistics if they don’t graduate.
“Sometimes those students come and register, stay for two days at Phoenix House, leave, we never hear from them again, and they’re counted as our dropouts,” Wolfrom said.
Strict enforcement of a new attendance policy at the high school is raising accountability among Maranacook students and helping ensure that they don’t fall behind, according to Wolfrom.
John Bapst High School in Bangor and Wells High School both had graduation rates of 99.1 percent.
For the second year in a row, Wiscasset High School had the lowest rate: 61.5 percent, down from 61.8 percent in 2011.
The statewide data showed gaps in graduation rates for several subgroups of students.
The graduation rate for female students was 87.3 percent, while for male students it was 83.5 percent.
Asian students had the highest graduation rate, 89.1 percent, while 71.7 percent of American Indian students graduated within four years.
Students who qualified for free or reduced lunch graduated on time at a rate of 75.7 percent, while students who did not qualify were at 93.3 percent.
Students with limited English proficiency graduated on time at a rate of 74.1 percent, compared to 85.6 percent for English-proficient students.
Students with disabilities had a graduation rate of 70.1 percent, compared to 88.5 percent for students without disabilities.
Susan McMillan — 621-5645