- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
The overall graduation rate for St. Mary’s students rose by 4 percent last year. However, about one in three students from low-income families continued to struggle in high school and did not graduate on time.
The four-year graduation rate for the Class of 2012 at the county’s three public high schools increased to 87.7 percent, a sign that some measures aimed at boosting the rate are working, school officials said. That tops the state average, which was 83.6 percent last year, according to data released by the Maryland State Department of Education last week.
Great Mills High School posted the biggest graduation increase, jumping 6 percentage points to 82 percent. Chopticon increased to 89.4 percent while Leonardtown’s rate was 91.2 percent.
Some demographic subgroups of students also posted increases to the graduation rate, including African-American and Hispanic students as well as students receiving special education services.
But the graduation rate for students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals based on lower family incomes has remained stagnant in St. Mary’s for several years. For the Class of 2012, 67.6 percent of low-income students in St. Mary’s graduated on time, compared to the state’s average of 74.9 percent for that demographic.
“Poverty does not always look the same from one area to another,” Scott Smith, executive director of secondary schools and school improvement, said.
Even within St. Mary’s, the rate of low-income students graduating varied by high school — 64 percent at Great Mills, 71 percent at Chopticon and 72 percent at Leonardtown.
“It’s a challenge for this county and something we really need to address,” Smith said.
Last year, 23 percent of St. Mary’s high school students came from low-income families.
Smith said that one issue impacting the graduation rate may be the lack of after-school programs at St. Mary’s high schools.
In particular, Smith pointed to the 21st Century grant-funded program called Bright Futures that ended two years ago at Great Mills.
“We recognize that a lot of times it’s more than just an academic intervention,” Smith said. In addition to help with homework and other academic assistance, the after-school programs aimed at struggling students can help offer a connection to the school through mentors or other ways that can help keep them from dropping out.
There are costs associated with after-school programs, especially when bus transportation home is factored in.
St. Mary’s public schools mostly rely on grants to fund after-school programs.
Mark Smith, coordinator of special programs, said there are a handful of after-school programs at Great Mills High School, including Sisters in Success and mentoring opportunities.
After-school programs can have a hard time competing with sports or clubs at high school, although some programs have proven successful in the past, Mark Smith said, at least until grant funding ran out.
Creating new after-school programs funded by the regular operating budget, especially at the high school level, is rarely discussed during school budget discussions.
“We’re doing everything we can to raise the rate, the bar, for all students,” school board member Mary Washington said. “Money is always an issue, so we try to get in the most we can during the school day,” in terms of intervening to help struggling students, she said.
Washington pointed out this week that St. Mary’s public schools are again funded at the second to the lowest rate in per pupil spending in Maryland when local, state and federal funding are examined. “You can’t do much [extra] with that,” she said.
She did point to the Fairlead Academy, which has expanded in recent years to offer those students deemed at risk of dropping out a smaller school environment and extra attention.
So far, the graduation rate for students in the program has been nearly as high as the overall rate, school officials said.
School board member Cathy Allen pointed to the school system’s new online course program, called APEX, which offers students a way to recover a failed grade.
She expects the program will improve the chances that more students graduate.
An additional 5 to 6 percent of students from low-income families are able to graduate from high school when five-year rates are used instead of four-year rates. Even then, however, the graduation rates are considerably lower compared to students not identified as low income.
Graduation rates for other demographic groups have improved.
The four-year cohort graduation rate for black students in St. Mary’s improved about 4.5 percent since 2010 to 77.2 percent. That remains below the graduation rate for white students, which rose to 90.2 percent last year.
Special education students in 2012 graduated at a rate of about 58 percent, a double-digit increase from the year prior.
The way schools calculate high school graduation rates recently changed to more accurately reflect the number of students graduating. The new “cohort rate” follows a class of students from their freshman year, subtracting the number of students who transferred out and adding anyone who transferred in to the class.
Statewide the graduation rate also saw a slight uptick, with the average rate at 83.6 percent for the Class of 2012.
The Maryland State Department of Education last week also released data related to the dropout rate, which is calculated by looking at the total number of students who dropped out of high school from a given graduation class over the last four years.
St. Mary’s dropout rate for the Class of 2012 was 8.8 percent, an improvement over the Class of 2011 rate of 11.4 percent. Those rates outpaced the Maryland averages.