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Stay-in-school efforts get high marks in Mass.

Progress made by cities stands out in report

Massachusetts recorded its lowest high school dropout rate in decades last school year amid substantial declines in such cities as Boston, Lawrence, and Springfield, state education officials announced Monday.

Just 6,248 students statewide (2.2 percent) quit high school in the 2012-13 school year, marking the fifth consecutive year that the rate has gone down.

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Education officials chalked up much of the decline to a statewide initiative called MassGrad, which pairs at-risk students with “graduation coaches,” internships, or other support services. A $15 million five-year federal grant, awarded in November 2010, is paying for the initiative.

Mitchell Chester, the state commissioner of elementary and secondary education, also credited the hard work of local districts for the decline.

“To see this kind of progress is tremendously encouraging and a tribute to the work of our school districts . . . to embrace every child and address the need of every child,” Chester said.

Less than a decade ago, the state was grappling with a vastly different situation when students were quitting school at increasingly higher rates. That trend sounded alarms in the Legislature, which debated several bills to raise the legal dropout age from 16 to 17 or 18. Although the bills went nowhere, the issue continues to percolate on Beacon Hill.

Boston has seen its dropout rate decline almost steadily since the height of the crisis in the 2005-06 school year, when 9.9 percent of students quit school. Last year, 5.9 percent of students quit school, representing 969 students out of 16,293, according to state data.

About eight years ago, the school system and some nonprofits launched a concerted effort to keep youths in school. A signature initiative was the opening of a “re-engagement center,” a specialized program for students who had previously quit school.

Boston’s school system also expanded summer school programs, offered more opportunities for students to make up courses online, and enhanced some common-sense approaches, such as being more diligent about monitoring student attendance and class work.

“We never expected that Boston could get dropout count below 1,000 so quickly,” said Neil Sullivan, executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council, a nonprofit that offers summer job and learning opportunities for at-risk students. “I’m breathless.”

Boston school officials, who for years have disputed the state’s methodology for determining dropout rates, said Monday that the district’s analysis shows an even rosier view. That analysis indicates that only 4.5 percent, or 828 students, quit school last year, down from 6.4 percent the previous year. It is the lowest rate the school system has recorded under its methodology since it began tracking data in 1977.

“Given the major decline, we are very proud,” said Kamal Chavda, Boston’s assistant superintendent for data and accountability.

Danny Melo, 17, a senior at Burke High School in Dorchester, benefited from one of the summer programs, which enabled him to take classes and secure a job at a community center after his sophomore year. The experience, he said, taught him the importance of doing well in school and going to college. He went from getting bad grades to mostly A’s and B’s, he said.

“It motivated me,” said Melo, who stressed that he never was going to drop out. “I knew the work was easy. All I had to do was put my mind to it.”

Other cities also saw big declines, the state reported. Lawrence’s dropout rate has consistently fallen from 14.8 percent in the 2006-07 school year to 5.8 percent last year.

New Bedford also hit 5.8 percent last year, a rate that has mostly been declining for much of the past decade. In just one year, Springfield cut its rate from 10 percent in 2011-12 to 6.5 percent last year.

“I could not be more proud of the hard work by our administrators, staff, and students,” Daniel J. Warwick, Springfield’s school superintendent, said in a statement. “They are the ones behind this great news.”

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.
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