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More St. Mary’s County public high school students picked up diplomas at commencement exercises last spring than ever before. That’s largely because the graduation rate for the Class of 2012 was 4 percent higher than for the Class of 2011.

In the blizzard of statistics now used to measure school performance some are more important than others. This is an important one.

Translated, it means that about 50 fewer young people dropped out of school, or didn’t finish on time, than in previous years. That makes 50 more St. Mary’s countians who will begin making their own way in life without the inevitable struggles that would follow if they didn’t have a high school diploma.

The news was particularly welcome at Great Mills High School, where until last year nearly one out of four students dropped out or failed to graduate on time. Last year, the graduation rate at Great Mills jumped 6 percent.

School officials cite a couple of reasons for the improvement. One is that the Class of 2012 included the first graduates from Fairlead Academy. These were seen as at risk of dropping out before completing high school. With lower class sizes, extra attention and higher expectations, the graduation rate among Fairlead students was nearly equal to that of the rest of their class.

Some students were also able to graduate on time because they took online classes, now offered at all high schools, to cover the same material they didn’t successfully complete in the regular classroom.

The four-year graduation rate rose among nearly all demographic groups — black students, Hispanic students, special education students. But not for one group.

The percentage of graduates from low-income families remained stagnant, with nearly one-third failing to graduate with the Class of 2012. That’s well below the state average.

This suggests that income is a persistently limiting obstacle on the path to graduation in St. Mary’s. Since education is perhaps the greatest tool people have to lift themselves out of poverty, this is troubling.

After-school programs for high school students have tried to address this by offering a support system for those who may struggle to stay in school. Some have shown success. A few remain in place. But many have operated for just a few years until the grant money that started them ran out.

That doesn’t make them worthless. They have undoubtedly made a difference in the lives of individual students, at least for a time. It does mean that none of them lasted long enough to gain a track record, be refined and turned into a long-term success in our community.

It’s true that such programs compete with school sports and other extracurricular activities for the attention of teenagers. But these activities already help motivate students and encourage them to stay in school, and still we have one out of three low-income students failing to graduate.

And it’s true that the resources of the public schools are finite. But each time an after-school program for struggling high school students is due to end because the grant money that started it is running out, the school board should evaluate its success. Then the school board should reallocate funds, or fight for more, to keep the successful ones running.