By Douglas Moser
---- — LAWRENCE — The percentage of students graduating in four years surged to 64 percent in Lawrence Public Schools last year, a jump of nearly 8 percent over the previous year that continues a stark turnaround for the city’s schools, according to education data released yesterday.
In 2011, 54.2 percent of students graduated from Lawrence in four years, up from 37.9 percent in 2008.
Haverhill Public School registered a 1 percentage point increase, to 74.8 percent, while Andover fell 1 percentage point to 95.4 percent and North Andover fell almost 2 points to 94.6 percent. Methuen held steady at 82 percent.
Overall, the state graduation rate rose to 84.7 percent, the sixth year of increases in a row, including gains for Hispanic students and students whose first language is not English.
“The jump seen with this most recent graduating class shows the combined, cumulative effects of some steps taken previously, the opening of the new high school campus in 2007-’08, for instance, or implementing in 2008-’09 an early warning program to identify at-risk kids, along with our newest efforts, like finding and bringing back 10 kids this summer who’d dropped out just short of graduation, and helping them get the credits needed to finish by August,” said Jeffrey Riley, the superintendent/receiver appointed by the state a little over a year ago.
Lawrence’s total graduation rate is six to eight percentage points higher than the four-year numbers, as some students take longer to graduate.
According to state data, 58.1 percent of students graduated in five years in 2011, as opposed to 52.3 percent who graduated in four years. In 2010, 53.7 percent graduated in five years, while 46.7 percent graduated in four.
The city’s annual dropout rate, or the percentage of students who drop out in a given year, fell to 5.9 percent, a 3-percent drop from last year and a full 7-percent decrease from 2008.
“The stable leadership we have in the city now is going to contribute to that graduation rate going up even more,” said Frank McLaughlin, president of the Lawrence Teachers Union.
Shalimar Quiles, a Lawrence High graduate who now works as the district’s manager for scholarly engagement, said the district hopes to build on the current momentum with the launch last year of the Phoenix Academy, where students who have dropped out and are reluctant to return to Lawrence High can complete their courses.
The academy also serves students currently enrolled in the high school who are having trouble.
“We believe the establishment of the Phoenix Academy, which allowed us to bring more than 70 kids back to a school that addresses their specific needs, as well as our other re-engagement efforts have had, and will continue to have, positive results in this area,” Riley said.
The state’s turnaround plan for Lawrence, which included charter schools working with failing schools, better communication, and a longer school day, was just put into place in September and did not have an impact on 2012 numbers.
“Anytime you make a change in the education system, it takes two to three years to see the needle moving,” said Pavel Payano, vice chairman of the Lawrence School Committee. “What this shows is the work of the teachers and administrators that has been done in last year or two. It’ll be a bit until we see that (turn around plan) impact.”
Mitchell Chester, commissioner of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the state in recent years has focused on identifying students at higher risk for dropping out earlier in their careers, even into elementary school, so teachers and administrators can work on keeping them in school.
“We’re identifying students in elementary grades and bringing students to the attention of the district so they can be proactive,” Chester said. “What happens in high school is very dependent on the education a student gets up to grade eight.”
Graduation rates for most local school districts have been fairly stable in recent years.
Andover fluctuated between 95 and 96 percent since 2008, Methuen between 80 and 82 percent, and North Andover between 94 and 96 percent.
“We’re confident that the long-term trend toward more graduations and fewer dropouts will continue,” said Methuen Superintendent Judith Scannell. “As the high school adheres to the state’s high learning standards, we will continue to assist our students with credit recovery, MCAS support, and career counseling systems that have been working effectively.”
The annual dropout rate in Haverhill dropped a full percentage point in 2012 to 5.8 percent.
In other districts, it has been relatively stable. In Andover and North Andover, it hovers between .2 and .8 percent. In Methuen, it fluctuates between 2.2 percent and 3.8 percent.
Mitchell said Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposal to boost education spending, paid for with a $1.9 billion annual hike in taxes that also would fund transportation repairs and expansions, would improve on the current progress.
“We still have a lot of work to do. There are students not reaching graduation,” he said. “It’s a good news day, but we still have students not making it through to graduation, not ready for the demands of the workforce, not ready for credit-bearing college work.”
Over the past five years, urban school districts, including Lawrence, made the largest gains in reducing the number of dropouts, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said yesterday in a statement.
The state’s annual dropout rate declined to 2.5 percent, the fourth consecutive year below 3 percent and lowest overall rate in decades. It was 3.8 percent in 2007.
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Getting that diploma Four-year adjusted graduation rate Year Andover Haverhill Lawrence Methuen N. Andover 2012 95.4 74.8 63.8 82 94.6 2011 96.4 73.8 54.2 82.1 96.6 2010 96.4 73.1 49 84.6 98.1 2009 95.8 68.4 49.8 81.7 98 2008 96 70.9 37.9 80.2 95.1 Annual dropout rate Year Andover Haverhill Lawrence Methuen N. Andover 2012 0.4 5.8 5.9 2.8 0.2 2011 0.8 6.9 8.6 2.2 0.4 2010 0.3 6.4 9.4 3.8 0.2 2009 0.6 5.4 10.2 3.4 0.5 2008 0.2 7.4 12.9 3.0 0.4