The final students to graduate from Rockland District High School next month have lost more than 40 percent of their classmates since they entered the building as freshmen in the fall of 2007.

The graduation rate at RDHS has been among the lowest in the state over many years but the class of 2011 has lost far more than in the past several years.

School officials have few answers about why the graduation rates have been so low but the principal vowed that this will improve significantly at Oceanside High School, which begins in the fall.

Enrollment figures provided by Regional School Unit 13 show that there were 136 freshmen at RDHS in October 2007. That number dropped to 124 by April of that school year.

In April 2009, the enrollment for the class had dropped again to 112 and by April 2010 the numbers dwindled to 94.

By last month, the number of seniors was down to 90. And the school projects that only 80 students will graduate on June 7.

That means since the class entered the high school, it lost 41 percent of its students (56 out of 136).

RDHS Principal Tom Forti, who will be the principal of Oceanside East, explained some of the decline in the enrollment for the class of 2011. He said 24 students have transferred to other districts over the four years while 10 students have transferred into the class.

Eighteen students have dropped out of school, two students have died, one person is in jail, one entered the Job Corps, and another graduated a year early.

In response to a news release earlier this month by the Maine Department of Education of graduation rates for the class of 2010 — in which RDHS had the 11th lowest rate in the state — Forti acknowledged he was stumped about why RDHS consistently has had low graduation rates compared to the state. He said the community values education as evidenced by the amount of local scholarships provided to graduates.

“I don’t know the answer to that,” Forti said about why RDHS has fared so poorly in relation to other schools.

He pointed out that Rockland is a service center and that there are many families who move in and out of the community and school during the school year.

But Forti said he was confident this would improve under the new high school.

“We’re really going to turn the corner,” Forti said about the new high school arrangement that begins in September.

Oceanside High School East will educate sophomores, juniors and seniors from the current RDHS and GVHS. Oceanside High School West will educate eighth- and ninth-graders.

Forti said the transition from middle school to high school has always been difficult. He said assisting students who are having difficulty in school is important to do as early as possible.

Regional School Unit 13 conducted a study of RDHS and GVHS students from 1995 through 2006. That study found that 90 percent of students who earned seven or more credits in their freshman year graduated within four years. For students who earned six or seven credits, the completion rate was 87 percent. But students with fewer than three credits at the end of their freshman year had a graduation rate of 30 percent.

The principal said that even the one year delay in a student entering Oceanside East will have a positive impact, noting that students will be more mature. The transition has been difficult because students at the younger age are experiencing not just academic challenges but social and emotional challenges.

There will be more remedial help in reading and writing next year, he noted. Incoming students are also given a mentor who can help ease the transition.

Forti said the goal is not just to increase the completion rate but to prepare students sufficiently for life after school.

The Maine Department of Education recently listed graduation rates for all Maine high schools for the class of 2010. The percentage of RDHS students who graduated in four years was 72 percent, the 11th lowest of the 133 high schools in Maine. The state average was 83 percent. GVHS’ graduation rate was 84 percent.

Forti noted that the formula used to determine graduation rates does not include people who earn diplomas through adult education, a general education diploma or who graduate in five years.

Last year, Forti said there were five or six students at RDHS who were told in late May that they would not be marching with their class at graduation because they had fallen short on the number of credits. But, four or five of those students made up the work and earned their diplomas in the summer. Those students did not count in the numbers, he said, but they received their diplomas.

The principal maintained that RDHS has high standards that include needing a 93 grade point average to be an honor student and a 70 grade point average to pass classes.

The assistant principal, a job Forti held for four years before becoming principal three years ago, will telephone the homes of students who stop coming to classes but that often contact with a family member does not occur. Letters will be sent and follow-up phone calls.

The 72 percent graduation rate for the class of 2010 was about the same as the 71 percent completion rate for the class of 2009.

Social, economic factors

In past years, school officials have cited social factors in the community as a possible reason for RDHS’ poor graduation rate. Those factors cited in the past have been that Rockland has a greater transient population and that those students are less connected to the schools and have a greater tendency to quit school.

According to a survey done by the U.S. Census Bureau from 2005 through 2009 in Rockland, nearly 52 percent of occupied residences in the community were rental units. This is one of the highest percentages in the state. This is nearly twice the state average of 27 percent.

Rockland also had a significantly lower median household income than the state in general, according to that census survey. Rockland’s median household income was estimated at $38,512 compared to a state average of $57,257.

In the 1980s and into the 1990s, the state education department would survey students and school officials as part of the standardized Maine Educational Assessment tests. The results of those surveys were used to determine social-economic bands where schools were likely to place. The results would then show how schools compare to both the state average and to the similar social-economic bands.

The state stopped that survey and creation of the bands in the mid-1990s.

Dan Hupp, the current state director of assessment and standards for the state education department, said those bands sent the wrong message.

“The message was that we expect less from students based on geography or economic factors,” Hupp said. “That was the wrong message to send.”

For the class of 2010, RDHS had the 11th lowest graduation rate in the state. Two of the schools that fared worse, however, were alternative high schools. Other high schools with lower graduation rates than RDHS were Fort Fairfield at 66 percent, Lewiston at 66 percent, Wiscasset at 67 percent, Lubec at 67 percent, Edward Little in Auburn at 68 percent, Winslow at 69 percent, Portland at 69 percent, and Cony at 71 percent.

On the other end of the spectrum, Falmouth, Monmouth and Yarmouth had 97 percent completion rates among schools with more than 20 students.