After three years of declining high school graduation rates, Maine school leaders are hopeful that the number of students collecting diplomas this spring will be the start of a rebound.

Maine high school graduation rates were on the rise until 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the trend reversed. School closures, learning loss, mental health challenges and chronic absenteeism have been largely to blame, school administrators said. Helping students recover from the pandemic remains a big challenge, they said, but as the lingering effects of the pandemic dissipate and educators work to support students socially, emotionally and academically, they believe graduation rates will start to go back up.

Official graduation rates for the Class of 2023 won’t be available until later this year, but school administrators said they anticipate the rates to be either steady or slightly above 2022.

In 2019, before the onset of COVID, 87.5% of Maine high school students graduated in four years. In 2020, the first year of COVID, the graduation rate dipped to 87.4%, then to 86.07% in 2021 and to 86.14 in 2022. A 1% drop in graduation rate translates to around 139 fewer students graduating.

The Maine students who will put on caps and gowns and walk across stages to accept their diplomas in the coming weeks were freshmen when the pandemic hit. Schools went remote in March of their freshman year. In their second year of high school, they attended class in largely hybrid formats. As juniors, they spent much of the year masked up and dealing with COVID outbreaks. This school year, their last, was the first relatively normal high school experience.

“A lot of school is about momentum, consistency and routine,” said Westbrook Superintendent Peter Lancia. “The pandemic got in the way of all of that.”


It’s not clear how the pandemic affected national graduation rates because the data is not yet available for the past two years. In 2019, 85.8% of U.S. high school students graduated in four years. In 2020, the latest year national data is available, that number went up to 86.5%.

But data shows that both nationally and in Maine, students struggled in many ways during the pandemic and have continued to do so in the wake of it.

Test scores have dropped, chronic absenteeism has gone up and there is an ongoing youth mental health crisis – all factors Maine school district leaders say play a role in graduation rates.

As a high school freshman, Molly Roe was highly motivated. She played soccer, had strong relationships with friends from school and worked hard to get all A’s. But when the pandemic hit and her high school shuttered its doors, things started to go downhill.

Her sophomore year, she went to school in person less than once a week – a total of 13 days. The rest of the days she attended remotely. The isolation of remote learning took a toll on Roe. She became depressed. She stopped working hard in school, lost touch with her friends and quit soccer. During the worst of it she wasn’t sure she would finish high school.

“I started feeling very hopeless because it just felt like so much of what I was looking forward to in a high school experience had been lost,” she said. “I lost any passion, interest or will to put effort into school or connecting with friends. It just felt like too much energy.”


Roe attended Noble High School in North Berwick her first two years of high school before transferring to a much smaller Old Orchard Beach High School, where her mother works.

Between 2020 and 2022, Old Orchard Beach High School’s four-year graduation rate dropped. It went from 86.4% in 2020 to 77.8% in 2022, meaning about five fewer students in a graduating class of around 55 made it to graduation.

Superintendent John Suttie said it’s no mystery how that happened. “There are kids who just haven’t come back to school,” he said.

The biggest impediment to graduating high school in Old Orchard Beach has been chronic absenteeism, said Suttie. He said the district has been working to engage with chronically absent students and their families and to look at alternative ways of connecting with and educating students. The district has also used federal COVID relief money to hire a staff person to work with chronically absent students to help them get back on track.

In other districts, mental health challenges and learning loss have been some of the preeminent roadblocks to graduating in four years.

Westbrook Superintendent Lancia said students who were excelling and students who were struggling before the pandemic were both impacted by the disruption COVID brought.


“I think we’re going to be reeling from the impact of the pandemic for years,” said Lancia. “Especially from the emotional and mental health toll it’s taken.”

Westbrook High School’s graduation rate oscillated during the pandemic but was still higher in 2022 than it was before the pandemic. In 2019 it was 82.4%, in 2020 86.7%, in 2021 83.9% and in 2022 83.3%.

Although the negative impact of the pandemic on student social, emotional and academic health has been significant, Lancia and other superintendents said they think students are getting back on track and will continue to do so with support from their schools.

“We see kids with a lot of ground to make up but we’re also seeing them make huge strides,” said Lancia.

Roe’s experience supports his optimism. Roe was able to attend school in person again in her junior year at Old Orchard. She began to regain energy and interest in what she was doing. Her passion for school came back, she started playing sports again, made new friends and reconnected with old ones.

In less than a week, Roe will graduate from high school and in the fall she’ll head to college at American University in Washington D.C.


“Sometimes I can’t even believe where I’ve made it considering where I was just two years ago,” she said.

While the state’s average rate has fallen, the change in high school graduation rates between 2019 and 2022 varies greatly between Maine high schools. Individual schools saw graduation rates fluctuate up and down between 2019 and 2022.

Bangor High School, Portland’s Casco Bay High School, Noble High School and Calais High School are among the schools that saw increased graduation rates.

But others, such as Brunswick High School, Bonny Eagle High School and Massabesic High School, saw decreased four-year graduation rates.

The data compiled by the Maine Department of Education shows the percentage of students who graduated within four years, which is widely considered the standard amount of time to graduate high school. But a four-year timeline isn’t the only option.

Graduating in four years isn’t feasible or even ideal for all students because students learn differently and have different life experiences and expectations outside of school, school administrators said.


For those kids, their schools can help them create a five- or six-year graduation plan. The problem, however, is that schools receive annual report cards that grade them based on factors including four-year graduation rates. When it takes students longer than four years to graduate, it negatively impacts the high schools’ report cards.

“The goal is to earn a high school diploma,” said John Suttie, the Old Orchard Beach Superintendent. “It should be rewarded no matter how long it takes.”

High school graduation in Maine and nationally is linked to race and economic status, among other factors. In 2022, when the average state graduation rate was 86.1%, the average graduation rate for Maine’s economically disadvantaged students – falling near or below the poverty line – was 77.6%. The same year, the graduation rate for Black students was 81.2% and for Hispanic students was 76.1.

High school graduation is a crucial indicator of success in later life. It is a requirement for most jobs and to move on to higher education. Not having a high school diploma is linked to low wages and poverty, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Maine school leaders said for them, graduation means they successfully carried out their charge.

“A high school diploma is an important document. It shows the completion of 13 years of study, it is an affirmation of hard work and learning. It allows students to enter into colleges and other programs and get better paying jobs,” said Lancia. “It really is an entry ticket to whatever comes next.”

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