SOUTH PORTLAND — A few key changes could help Portland’s high school graduates vastly improve their odds of sticking with – and being successful at – community college, the president of Southern Maine Community College said Monday.

“Let’s put our institutions together,” Ron Cantor said in a kickoff keynote address to about 60 Portland school district administrators and school leaders at a weeklong retreat organized by Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk.

Cantor said 26 percent of the 135 Portland high school graduates who went to SMCC in 2011 dropped out after the first semester, and almost all of the students — 93 percent — needed at least one remedial course in math or English.

“In our culinary program, the instructor will tell them, if there are more people, to double the recipe. And they don’t know how to double the recipe,” Cantor said. “Or we have students say, ‘I don’t need to take math, I’m going to be a carpenter.'”

Letting students know while they are still in high school that they will need certain skills – and giving them certain tests early to show them their weaknesses – can help prepare students for college-level work, he said.

“They need to know how to divide fractions. The scientific method shouldn’t be a new concept. They need to write a paragraph that doesn’t make a reader cringe,” Cantor said.

He also told the group to encourage students to take advantage of dual enrollment programs, in which high school students can take college courses at little or no cost and have a few college credits by the time they graduate from high school.

He recommended that the school district and the community college work together on a “summer bridge” program to mentor and provide one-on-one help to students who intend to go to college the fall after they graduate.

Thirty-seven percent of those students never show up in the fall, Cantor said.

“They call it the summer melt,” he said. “Let’s put together an air-conditioned summer bridge.”

Caulk said the district is working on several of those fronts already.

This is the second leadership retreat Caulk has held since he became Portland’s superintendent last year.

“We want to focus on leadership excellence across the district,” Caulk told the group. “It’s going to rest on the shoulders of everyone in this room.”

Cantor said he is impressed with efforts already under way in Portland schools.

“We’re wrestling with a lot of similar challenges,” he said, from operating on tight budgets to pushing students to break through “low education aspirations.”

“It baffles me about Maine,” said Cantor, noting that Mainers have a strong work ethic, which usually indicates a drive to succeed in education. “In Maine, the education aspirations are just not there. No matter why (that is), we need to work on increasing education aspirations.”

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

[email protected]

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