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Maine Sees Gain in High School Graduation Rate
02/25/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

Maine's graduation rate ticked up again in 2012.  Just over 85 percent of high school students in Maine are earning diplomas in four years - an increase of more than five points since 2009. State education officials discussed the gains Monday at a high school that's been one of the state's biggest success stories in recent years.  Jay Field reports.

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Maine Sees Gain in High School Graduation Rate
Originally Aired: 2/25/2013 5:30 PM
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Eighty-three percent:  That's the number of kids that have to graduate for a high school to measure up in the eyes of the federal government.

It's a level of success that seemed out of reach when a new principal arrived at Deer Isle Stonington High School six years ago. By 2009, Todd West had launched a series of reforms, but the school's graduation rate remained stuck at 58 percent - the lowest in the entire state.

"I think that's one of the great paradoxes about school improvement," West says. "We know pretty well what works. It's just...it's really hard to put it in place."

Shortly after his arrival, West and his staff decided they could raise the graduation rate by focusing on three specific areas. Deer Isle Stonington, they agreed, needed an overall school culture that put more stock in graduating. West says some in the community viewed a diploma as a terminal degree. And many students, he says, come from homes where few, if any, family members had ever earned one.

Teachers, West and his staff reasoned, needed to meet continuously to bounce instructional methods off each other to figure out what works best for different kinds of learners. And all learners, especially struggling ones, would get attention from student assistance teams. "which reviews each student's progress, in a regular and systematic way, so that no student falls through the cracks," West says.

"Ms. Turner is a math teacher here and her door is always open, whenever you need anything, and math is not my strong point at all. So I spent many evenings with her," says Abigail Bray, a senior who is graduating in June. "Every teacher that I've ever had in this school has been like, 'You have this missing and this missing and you need to do that!' And without that, I would not be graduating in June, I don't think, at all."

But if all goes according to plan, Bray will get her diploma, along with virtually everyone else in a senior class that averages between 30 and 40 students.

At struggling high schools, it's sometimes fashionable to lurch from one series of reforms to another, when they don't show immediate results.  Deer Isle Stongington, though, doubled down on its plan, a strategy that's now paying off. Last year, the school graduated 94 percent of its kids.

It's the reason Stephen Bowen, Maine's Education Commissioner, chose to visit the school to release last year's graduation numbers. Maine's overall rate was up a point-and-a-half to over 85 percent. But Bowen says, while the news is good, there are still worriesome trends buried in the data.

"We're seeing gaps, for instance, between male and female students. Our female students are graduating at a higher percentage than our males students - 87 percent to 83 percent," he says. "We have gaps between our students with disabilites and our non-disabled students."

Bowen says narrowing those divides won't be easy. If other high school principals call him up seeking advice, Bowen says he won't hestitate to give them Todd West's number on Deer Isle.

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