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Graduation rates at Mass. schools rise

Graduation rates at public high schools in Massachusetts ­increased for a sixth consecutive year, a sign that educational overhaul is yielding results, state officials announced Wednesday.

Some 84.7 percent of students who entered high schools in fall 2008 graduated last year, an ­increase of 4.8 percentage points from six years earlier, according to the newly released data.

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State officials said that black and Latino students, who have long been the least likely to graduate, had among the highest ­increases in graduation rates, as well as students who are not yet fluent in speaking English.

“These are outstanding ­results,” Mitchell Chester, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said in an interview. “In today’s world, a high school diploma is now a minimum credential. . . . In fact, in most living-wage jobs, you need to be educated beyond a high school level.”

But Chester added that he was not completely satisfied with the numbers.

“We have too many students not making it through to securing a high school diploma,” he said.

Of the 73,479 students who ­entered high school in 2008, more than 11,000 of them did not earn diplo­mas four years later, mostly because they quit school or repeated a grade. The latter group gives state and ­local officials hope that those students will eventually graduate.

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State leaders and local school officials have focused more intensely on efforts to keep students in school.

With the help of a $15 million federal grant in 2010, local high schools have been able to pursue a variety of interventions, such as hiring graduation coaches and creating more oppor­tunities for students to do internships or community service, enabling them to better understand the connections ­between classroom lessons and the real world.

State officials also released another figure Wednesday that indicated those efforts might be working: The state’s annual high school dropout rate ­decreased to 2.5 percent last year, the fourth consecutive year it has been below 3 percent and the lowest rate in ­decades.

In Boston, where Superintendent Carol R. Johnson has made increasing graduation rates a top priority since coming to the city in 2007, the graduation rate has been steadily climbing. The rate for last year hit 65.9 percent, the highest level ever recorded for the city.

“We are extremely pleased,” Johnson said. “These numbers demonstrate that some of the work we are doing is paying off.”

Boston has undertaken a number of efforts to get more students to graduation. It opened a ­“re-engagement center,” where staff members track down students who quit school, persuade them to ­re-enroll, and then try to come up with a course of study that will keep them interested in school.

The district has also expanded capacity at several of its highest-performing and most-sought-after high schools and, through online offerings, has increased opportunities for students to retake classes they have failed.

The increase in graduation rates in Boston and across the state represents a cultural shift in high schools where there is a much stronger focus on getting students to earn diplomas, rather than just increas­ing scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exams, said Neil ­Sullivan, executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council, a public-private partnership between businesses and educational institutions.

“We used to only focus on the students who did well in high school,” said Sullivan, whose organization works with Boston schools on drop-out prevention strategies. “Now, we focus equally on the struggling students and, in Boston, even those who left school. When you chase dropouts and bring them back to the school system, they teach other students a lesson.”

Across the state last year, English-language learners increased their graduation rate by 4.9 percentage points, compared to 2011; Hispanic students by 3.6 percentage points; students with disabilities by 3 percentage points; and African-American students by 2.7 percentage points. Those increases were much higher than that of Asian and white students.

Big gulfs divide the groups. Asian and white students, for example, graduated at a rate of nearly 90 percent. African-Americans did so at a rate of 73.4 percent, while the other groups were between 60 and 70 percent.

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.
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