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What's Behind Wiscasset High's Plunging Graduation Rate?
12/04/2012   Reported By: Jay Field

Maine has the 10th-best high school graduation rate in the country, according to U.S. Department of Education, which for the first time this year, is using a standard formula to compare states. The good news is tempered, though, by a fair number of schools across the state that are still struggling. One is Wiscasset High School, where in just three years, the graduation rate has fallen by nearly 17 percentage points. In the first of a two-part series, Jay Field takes a look at why.

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At Wiscasset High, some of the school's biggest success stories, it turns out, are also helping drag down its graduation rate. Take, for example, the case of Dale Peaslee. To understand how this soft-spoken, 17 year old ended up at Wiscasset, you first have to know something about his father.

"My dad didn't graduate eighth grade. So he wants me to turn everything around," Peaslee says. "He wishes he could go back and just go through everything and graduate and get a high school diploma."

Peaslee's father started digging blood worms to sell as bait when he was 15, And for a long time, not having that high school diploma didn't keep him from making a living. But eight years ago, Peaslee's dad had to quit digging after hurting his back. He started looking for new work, but found severely limited options without the diploma.

Until recently, it looked like Peaslee himself might end up in the same position as his father. "I started at Erskine Academy three or four years ago. And I ended up dropping out of there cause I just started failing all of my classes," he says. "And then, after that, I went to Cony and dropped out of there because my dad ended up in the hospital."

Peaslee considered dropping out. But his Dad urged him to give school another try. The family is from the town of Whitefield, which has school choice. So Peaslee began traveling 30 miles, by bus, to the only option he had left - Wiscasset High, in the consolidated district known as Sheepscott Valley, or RSU 12.

"I only had 2.5 credits and that didn't allow me to be a sophomore," he says. "So last year, I was a freshman at 16 years old. I passed all my classes last year, which got me enough credits so I could be a junior this year."

Wiscasset has been losing students in recent years. The school now has fewer than than 250 students. Peaslee credits the smaller environment - and more individualized attention from teachers - for his improving fortunes. He's now on track to graduate in what will end up being five years.

But in Maine, high schools have their graduation rates calculated based on the number of students earning degrees in four years. Deb Taylor is Wiscasset's principal.

"There are those students that we know, when we're signing them on and we're registering them, we are registering a dropout as the state would define them. There is nothing in me that could call that student a dropout," Taylor says.

What they are, are kids who begin high school in one place and end up somewhere else. The phenomenon is called mobility. Every year, Taylor says she gets a detailed breakdown of Wiscasset's student body from the state.

"Immediately, when I look at that over time, I see a number of trends. Number one, decreasing high school student population. Number two, greatly increasing number of transfers in and transfers out," she says.

Increased student mobility is on the rise in districts large and small across the state. Many factors are driving it, including ongoing fallout from district consolidation, expanded school choice, a weak employment market that has families moving around in search of work and a sharp rise, in recent years, in the state's poverty level.

As Taylor digested the recent trends at her school, she wondered if it could explain - at least partially - the nearly 17-point drop in the schools graduation rate over the past three years. So Taylor and her staff compared the graduation rates for students who attend Wiscasset all four years and those who transfer in.

"And that's where I saw dramatically different graduation rates. So those who are with us all four years are in the high 70s - 78 percent I believe. And for those who transfer in at some point in their high school career, in the 40s."

Now, Wiscasset is not a school free of problems, and there are likely other reasons for the decline in the school's graduation rate. But Taylor clearly believes it's a big contributing factor.

It's a problem that's not unique to Wiscassett, says Don Siviski, the state Superintendent of Instruction. Siviski says many districts struggle to help these kinds of kids.

"It's a huge challenge for a school system to stabilize a child's life and then get to the learning process," Siviski says. "Not all children are like that who move. But a majority of the transient population who go from school to school in the course of a year do not have a stable background."

Tomorrow, we'll take a look at steps Wiscasset High School is taking to improve its academic performance, including the introduction of a new teacher evaluation system.



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