Earlier this year, the Maine Legislature passed a law that set an ambitious goal to increase the statewide high school graduation rate to 90 percent by the end of the 2015-16 school year.

In response, a 26-member group of educators and others has begun developing guidelines to help Maine school districts graduate more students.

The group’s recommendations are due by Nov. 1. The Maine Department of Education is expected to submit a report on the findings to the Legislature’s Education Committee by Jan. 10.

“It is ambitious,” said state Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, who sponsored the legislation. “But it should be a priority for every single school district to keep kids in school and make education relevant.”

Alfond’s legislation followed Maine’s first statewide dropout-prevention summit, held last summer at the University of Maine. At the summit, more than 250 educators, students, elected officials, business leaders and others worked on plans to increase the statewide graduation rate from about 80 percent in 2006-2007 to 90 percent by 2015-2016, with a long-range goal of 100 percent.

The national dropout rate has ranged from 29 percent to 34 percent in recent years. About 1.3 million students leave U.S. high schools each year, an average of 7,200 students every school day, according to America’s Promise Alliance.

Maine loses about 3,000 potential graduates each year, said Alfond, who is co-chairman of the Education Committee. It’s unclear how many of them eventually get General Educational Development diplomas.

As a group, however, dropouts are more likely to be incarcerated, rely on public programs and social services, and go without health insurance than those who graduate, according to the alliance. Nationally, dropouts from the class of 2006-07 will cost the United States more than $329 billion in lost wages, taxes and productivity over their lifetimes.

Alfond’s legislation directed the commissioner of education and the State Board of Education to establish a group that would recommend guidelines to increase the graduation rate. The group is meeting through the summer and has divided up tasks in order to meet its Nov. 1 deadline, Alfond said.

One area the group is studying is how Maine high schools handle suspensions and expulsions related to attendance and truancy issues, and the impact of zero-tolerance practices on students and graduation rates. Some districts have written policies for the practices, others don’t.

One group member, Brianna Twofoot, has been interested in the fairness of these policies for a while. She is field director for the Maine Civil Liberties Union.

“It’s important for us to see what practices we can improve and what practices we can continue,” Twofoot said. “We are concerned with making sure all students have a quality education.”

The group also is studying how Maine high schools record and track dropouts and who counts as a graduate or a dropout. Federal regulations strictly dictate how dropouts are counted, but districts often make mistakes, Alfond said. Furthermore, the graduate count doesn’t include students who get GED diplomas or former dropouts who take more than four years to complete high school.

The group also is studying how some school districts in Maine and elsewhere maintain graduation rates of 90 percent or better. It will recommend best practices for schools, families and youth-oriented organizations.

“We want to know what they’re doing that can be shared across the state,” Alfond said.

 

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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