By Susan McMillan
Editors’ note: This database was revised on Feb. 27 to correct several errors in schools’ past graduation rates.
AUGUSTA — Maine's high school graduation rate has improved significantly for the third straight year. Figures released Monday by the state Department of Education show that the statewide 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. Before that, Maine calculated the rate in a way that is not comparable.
Statewide last year, 13,036 high school 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 where at least 60 percent of the students are publicly funded.
Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen said too many students are not graduating on time, and sizeable gaps remain between groups of students.
But he said the 5 percentage-point rise since 2009, with 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.
The staff told him that its success comes from steps 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.
The new figures show that 75 of Maine's high schools, 56 percent, improved their graduation rates from 2011 to 2012. About 36 percent fell below the threshold of 83 percent set in federal accountability standards.
While the graduation rate at Deering High School in Portland increased from 76.5 percent in 2010-11 to 81.6 percent last year, the rate at Portland High for the same period went down 10 percentage points, from 83.5 to 73.3.
School board Chairman Jaimey Caron said nothing less than 100 percent is acceptable at the city's high schools.
"Our goal is to graduate 100 percent of our students and have them be college- and career-ready," Caron said Monday. "When you look at some of the jobs and (post-secondary) schools that are out there, you've got to have some pretty good skills. It's not just enough to graduate anymore."
Caron said the 70 to 80 percent graduation rate range is not acceptable, but Portland is unlike any other school district in Maine. Besides being the largest district, it has a significant number of refugees and immigrants from across the globe.
Because of that, he said, "It's hard to compare us to other folks."
Lake Region High School Principal Ted Finn didn't need to see the latest data to know that his school in Naples has been improving. He sees the improvements in the halls and classrooms every day.
"We've changed the entire culture here," Finn said Monday.
The school of about 570 students from Naples, Bridgton, Casco and Sebago was targeted in 2010 under the federal No Child Left Behind Act as one of 10 persistently low-performing schools in Maine and was awarded a $1.6 million federal grant to turn things around.
Data released Monday showed that Lake Region increased its graduation rate from 79.2 percent in 2010-11 to 91 percent in 2011-12. It was among the biggest one-year increases in Maine.
Although the No Child Left Behind Act uses test scores, not graduation rates, to measure improvement, Finn said the increase in the graduation rate shows that things are working.
One of the biggest changes at Lake Region was a shift to an academy-based model. Students now must enroll in one of six academies at the school: global studies; community service; natural science; design and engineering; sports, health and wellness; and arts.
The grant money helped train teachers on the new model and provided funds to pay teachers for after-school hours. It also created the position of student advocate, an employee who is dedicated to helping students who are falling behind.
The school won't know for at least another year whether it has made adequate yearly progress under the federal law, but the principal is confident.
"In fact, I've been trying since last year to get the education commissioner to come out here and see what we've done," Finn said.
In School Administrative District 51, covering Cumberland and North Yarmouth, school officials couldn't have asked for a much higher graduation rate.
Greely High School graduated 96.4 percent of its seniors on time last year, ranking fourth in Maine, behind only John Bapst High School in Bangor (99.1 percent), Wells High School (99.1 percent) and Erskine Academy in China (96.6 percent).
Superintendent Bob Hasson attributes Greely's success to programs that are aimed at supporting students as they move through the system.
The district relies on a committee called All Students Graduate, which works year-round to ensure that students get the academic help and support they need to graduate.
"We're aiming one day to be at 100 percent," Hasson said.
Another top-ranked school was Kennebunk High School, which graduated 93.8 percent of its students on time in 2012, according to the state.
"It's a signal that we are doing our job," said Kevin Knight, chairman of the Regional School Unit 21 board. "We want all of our students to succeed. One of the most basic measures of success is getting a student through high school."
For the second year in a row, Wiscasset High School had the lowest rate in Maine: 61.5 percent, down from 61.8 percent in 2011.
The statewide data showed gaps in graduation rates for several subgroups of students.
The rate for girls was 87.3 percent, while for boys 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-price 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 with 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.
– Portland Press Herald Staff Writers Dennis Hoey and Eric Russell contributed to this report.
Susan McMillan can be contacted at 621-5645 or at:
CORRECTION: This story and accompanying database were updated at 5:13 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013 to correct Scarborough's graduation rates. It was updated at 5:58 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013 to clarify that the state graduation rate increased five percentage points, not five percent.