LEWISTON — The dropout rate in Androscoggin County is the highest in the state, and its high school graduation rate is the lowest, according to the most recent Maine Department of Education data.
The dropout rate for Androscoggin County was 5.95 percent in 2007-08, the most recent year available. The state average was 4.13 percent. The dropout rate in Cumberland County was 3.95 percent; in Oxford County, 5.26 percent; and Franklin, 2.99 percent. Knox County had the lowest, 2.80 percent.
Dropout rates will be part of an annual Maine Kids Count report released Monday. The report takes a comparative look at how Maine kids are faring in health, education and family income, among other things.
Historically, dropout rates have been high in Androscoggin County.
“I don't think this is new,” Lewiston School Superintendent Leon Levesque said Thursday. “That's why we have College for ME-Androscoggin and a battery of other programs. It's not a secret that Lewiston High School, the largest school in the county, has the highest dropout rate, which helps drive the county rate up."
When a school's dropout rate is "way above" the state average, that school has some work to do, said Shelley Reed, who works on truancy, dropout prevention and alternative education for the Maine Department of Education. Lewiston High School's rate was 8.37 percent.
The good news, she said Thursday, is that Androscoggin County schools are working aggressively to help more students stay in school. Many have mentors and programs to help struggling students.
“Some have started identifying specific groups of youth who could use some targeted assistance,” Reed said. County educators meet regularly to share information and are working hard on the problem, she said.
The reasons for dropping out are many. Only a minority of adults in Androscoggin County have college degrees. “There's a connection between the parents' education level and where their kids are at,” Levesque said. Other reasons are that students are homeless, poverty-stricken or from struggling families.
Youngsters who fail in school are frequently absent. “So we chase the kids until the cows come home,” Levesque said.
One of the biggest predictors for dropping out is poor performance. When students fail, they get discouraged. Some quit. “That's why we have free summer school for kids,” Levesque said. “We have after-school credit recovery, tutoring, a lot of services. Still, we haven't been able to crack that nut.”
Lewiston is about to open a downtown alternative high school, Levesque said. Guidance workers, teachers and social workers are identifying struggling students to give them more help.
Adding to the problem are immigrant students who need time to learn English and get their diplomas, but they often don't have enough time before they're counted as dropouts, Levesque said. When students don't graduate from high school in four years, they're counted as dropouts, even if they're in their fifth year of high school or are working on their GEDs through adult education. Students can stay in high school until they're 20. After that, they must attend adult education.
This week, two immigrant students registered for high school. “They're 18 and 19 and have never been in school,” Levesque said. “Guess what. They're going to be identified as dropouts.”
At 1.88 percent, Leavitt Area High School in Turner had the lowest dropout rate in the county, according to state statistics. Principal Patrick Hartnett said the school has a daily “adviser period,” during which kids check in with adults. “It's like a souped-up home room,” Hartnett said.
Leavitt also has an “adopt-a-senior” program to help at-risk seniors. It could be that those programs have helped, or it could be that Leavitt had a good year, Hartnett said.
Poland's dropout rate of 4.56 is about the same as the state average. Superintendent Dennis Duquette said he was not satisfied with that. Poland Regional High School has a opened an alternative school right inside the school, called “DPATH,” which stands for “different path” to graduation.
“So many kids don't make it in the mainstream,” Duquette said.
Auburn too has thrown many programs at the problem. Still, Auburn's 6.11 percent dropout rate is higher than the state average.
“We can't lose focus on our goal,” of helping every student graduate and be college-ready, said Superintendent Tom Morrill. The solutions vary from student to student. Sometimes it takes big initiatives. Sometimes it's just one teacher giving extra help to one student.
Keeping more students in school will take a broad community effort, Morrill said. “It's a challenging task, but we'll get there.”