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Just about anyone in their mid-20s or older knows that traveling through life without a high school diploma is like running a race beginning a mile behind the starting line.

However, that’s not always evident to people when they are 16 or 17 years old, when school can be a struggle, or seem unimportant, or personal and family problems can weigh heavily.

These students who drop out of school, or who don’t complete the requirements to graduate, may go back to earn their GED. Or they may be hobbled by limited or no job opportunities, increasing the risk that they will be a burden rather than productive members of their communities.

At a time of increasingly rigorous graduation requirements, St. Mary’s County public schools have created new opportunities — or ladders, as the superintendent of schools recently called them — to help teenagers over the hurdles between them and a diploma.

These ladders are likely why the graduation rate for St. Mary’s County’s public high schools topped 90 percent this year.

Yes, that means almost 10 percent of high school students still are not graduating in four years. Ninety percent is a minimum standard set by the Maryland State Department of Education, but this year’s 90.3 percent rate in St. Mary’s, though still unofficial, is the first time St. Mary’s school have met that goal. The statewide average last year was 86.3 percent.

Behind each 10th of 1 percent of that rate are real people who must do the work to earn credits in math, science, English and other subjects to earn a diploma. The must also pass the High School Assessments, a series of tests in algebra, science, English and government.

Before passing these tests became a requirement for graduation in 2009, there was fear that students could be denied a diploma after 13 years of schooling because they choked on a test.

That hasn’t happened, partly because the state says that those who don’t pass the tests after repeated attempts, but who have otherwise met graduation requirements, can complete what is called a Bridge project instead. This year 6.7 percent of St. Mary’s students completed a Bridge project.

But there are other programs in St. Mary’s schools that are also helping people earn a diploma, and not just by dancing around a requirement to do well on a state standardized test.

High school students who do poorly on classroom tests are in many cases given a chance to recover their grade by trying again to show they have learned the material. The Apex program allows students to take online courses covering the same material presented in a classroom, permitting students willing to make the effort to pass classes in another way. And Fairlead Academy, which offers extra attention to students seen as at risk of dropping out, has proven itself. This year 77 students graduated from Fairlead; many of them likely would not have otherwise.

The end result is that St. Mary’s students who are encouraged and willing to do the work have many paths to a diploma. They will find that the effort they invest will pay dividends later in their lives. The investment made to ensure they are not hobbled as they begin their adult lives will pay dividends for the community as well.