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After recent bad years, Rockland’s dropout rate improves significantly

Teacher Angela Armstrong directs a water lab for Ryan Palmer, 14 (left), and other freshman biology students last week at Rockland High.

Brian Feulner for the Boston Globe

Teacher Angela Armstrong directs a water lab for Ryan Palmer, 14 (left), and other freshman biology students last week at Rockland High.

ROCKLAND — A few years ago, a serious problem began brewing in Rockland: Students were dropping out of high school in droves.

But that troubling trend has been reversed in this small, blue-collar suburb of 17,489 people, according to the latest data from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

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The Rockland public school district reported that seven students dropped out during the 2010-2011 school year, and that the high school’s dropout rate improved to 1.2 percent — the lowest it’s been in a decade, and significantly lower than the statewide rate of 2.7 percent.

This marks a big turn in the right direction compared with 2008-2009, when 39 Rockland students quit. The year after that, 45 students left and Rockland’s dropout rate skyrocketed to 7.8 percent — more than double the state’s at the time and a situation Rockland Schools Superintendent John Retchless described as “unacceptable.”

Retchless said the schools have worked hard to address the issue, and their efforts appear to have paid off. Rockland High School instituted a “credit recovery program” to provide students opportunities to make up coursework and unexcused absences. School officials are monitoring incoming freshmen more closely, beginning in middle school. Social workers were assigned to the high school and middle school to work with students and their families, he said. Now, there is even a social worker assigned to work with elementary school students.

“We’ve been doing a lot,” said Retchless, adding he’s pleased to see that more students are choosing to stay in school. “It’s a big deal in our little town.”

Rockland is also wrapping up a massive school construction project, and its students now enjoy fresh middle school and high school facilities. They attend classes in sparkling, state-of-the-art classrooms and science labs. The high school auditorium has an orchestra pit and is outfitted with the latest audio equipment and technology. The school is offering robotics courses.

Alan H. Cron, the new principal, says students at Rockland High take their education very seriously and they’re protective of the school’s reputation. In Rockland today, “kids are going to Ivy League schools,” he said.

For the past seven years, more than 71 percent of Rockland High School’s graduating seniors have gone on to attend college, the numbers fluctuating slightly from year to year.

“From year to year, you get different cohorts of kids,” said Cron. “These kids are really focused, and they understand how important their high school education is.”

Rockland High School is small by comparison with many others in the area. There were 586 students in grades 9 through 12 last year, and there were 152 students in the senior class. Nonetheless, teachers are watching to make sure no one gets lost in the shuffle.

“There’s an effort to target and support students who are struggling academically,” said Cron. “We want kids to leave here ready for the next step.”

Retchless agrees.

“We’re really focusing on kids to get all their credits,” he said. “If they fall too far behind, they get discouraged and drop out.”

And that’s something no superintendent or teacher wants to see.

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.
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