As the temperatures rise and the days grow longer, students across the nation who have successfully completed the required course of study have received their diplomas from high schools and are pondering their next steps.

It is more and more understood that a high school diploma is required for adults to have any hope of a promising future. Without it, a John Hopkins University report notes, “Young people who do not graduate high school are less likely to be employed, earn less income, have worse health and lower life expectancy, are less likely to be civically engaged, and are more likely to be involved with the criminal justice system and require social services. Without some training beyond high school, securing a stable, well-paying job is very unlikely.”

In 2016, while 87 percent of students in Maine graduated, only 78 percent of students who were economically disadvantaged graduated. This disturbing gap between the two subgroups requires that we do more to reduce the number of students dropping out, especially those in at-risk subgroups. How can we work together to ensure that more students complete high school successfully?

Regional School Unit 5 is asking that question as we gather information to create a new strategic plan. Thus far, over 1,000 members of the RSU 5 community have given their feedback on what learning should look like to make it as relevant and as engaging as possible – which should lead to 100 percent of our students graduating, regardless of their socioeconomic status.

There is not one solution that fits all of our students. Proficiency-based education promotes multiple pathways for everyone to reach success. These pathways acknowledge that students learn differently.

One pathway that has gained momentum in recent years is dual enrollment classrooms, where students receive both high school and college credit simultaneously. Dual-enrollment classes have been shown to give students a preview of the college experience and permit them to obtain some post-secondary credit before even enrolling at a college or university. That can lead to savings in tuition and reduce the risk of dropping out in high school and college. At Freeport High School, we are excited to be expanding these offerings next year to include calculus and quantitative reasoning.

Another pathway may lead to more hands-on, experiential learning. In RSU 5, to ease the transition as fifth-grade students move to the middle school, the students attended Chewonki for four days this spring. During this time, they participated in outdoor education that focused on team building and environmental studies, including sustainability.

Students were in teams of 10-12 and were required to prepare their own food and set up their own tents. While the students were involved in the daily living chores of camp life, they also participated in pond studies, a farm study, and strengthened their map and compass skills.

Through multiple pathways we should be able to reach the goal of a 100 percent graduation rate. What is no longer acceptable is having a mindset that accepts 30-40 percent of students failing, which was the model when schools graded on the bell curve.

Although some mourn the “olden days” of education, we do not want to return to 1940, when they celebrated that the high school graduation rate reached an all-time high of 50 percent. We cannot truly celebrate until 100 percent of our students receive high school diplomas, thus ensuring that they are equipped for a promising tomorrow.

Becky Foley is superintendent of schools in Regional School Unit 5 (Freeport-Durham-Pownal). She can be reached at [email protected].