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Merrimack High grad rates slip

MERRIMACK – Merrimack High School officials believe a variety of retention efforts are helping them demonstrate a consistently low dropout rate, which is less than 3%.

However, New Hampshire Department of Education data school Principal Sharon Putney shared with the Merrimack Board of Education this week shows that graduation rates are dropping.

“I can say that I really appreciated the opportunity to be able to dig a little bit deeper into this topic,” Putney said during the board’s Monday meeting.

The Department of Education puts New Hampshire students into a cohort beginning in grade 9 and calculates a school’s graduation rate by the number of graduates divided by the cohort number.

In other words, if there are 300 students in a class, that would be the cohort.

• For the 2014-15 school year, the cohort number was 337 and the number of graduates was 303. This calculates to an 89.91% graduation rate.

• For the 2015-16 school year, the cohort number was 330 and the number of graduates was 291.

This results in an 88.18% graduation rate.

• For the 2016-17 school year, the cohort number was 289 and the number of graduates was 251. This yields a graduation rate of 86.85%.

• For the 2017-18 school year, the cohort number was 323 and the number of graduates was 278. This equals an 86.07 % graduation rate.

Putney said data from the most recent school year isn’t available yet.

Though the data provides a snapshot of Merrimack’s graduates, Putney emphasized the graduation rate only accounts for those students who graduate within the traditional four-year time frame.

“A student who graduates in more than four years, by the DOE guidelines, is considered as a non-graduate and cannot be considered as a graduate from Merrimack High. This means that students who maybe earned Hi-Set or because of their special needs, medical issues, family issues, social emotional issues and trauma, who graduated later than the scheduled time or with a modified diploma or certificate of completion are not considered graduates because it is not within that four-year time frame with that cohort and it is not considered a regular high school diploma,” Putney said.

“There are factors that are out of the control of our students in a lot of situations,” Putney said. “In order to have a graduation rate of 100% at Merrimack High School, it would mean that each student that started in ninth grade graduated four years later with a regular high school diploma.”

Merrimack School District Superintendent Mark McLaughlin said, “When you see a graduate rate of 86.07%, one could assume, ‘Well, what’s the alternative? That must mean that the other 14 have dropped out.’ What we’re sharing tonight is that is far from the case.

He later added, “What we’ve learned in this process is that it doesn’t appear any two districts report exactly the same way. It is hard to imagine the situation here, the same number of students, freshmen, 100% of those students graduate as seniors four year later. So no students would need to have an additional year of support, no student would have had any kind of physical or injurious trauma of some sort that would require an extension.”

Putney also brought data with her from the Department of Education that focuses strictly on the students who dropped out, not including the number of students who participated in the High-Set program.

“If you look purely at the dropout rate percentages, they are actually really quite low,” Putney said.

For the 2014-15 school year, the dropout rate was only 1.78%. For the 2015-16 school year it was 2.42%. For the 2016-17 school year, it was 1.38 % and for the 2017-18 school year, it was 2.17%.

“We do not want any students to drop out of Merrimack High School,” Putney said.

She said the district utilizes a variety of tools to retain students. Putney said they have tours for identified students and she said some students take multiple tours of the high school so they get to a point where they feel very comfortable.

The school works to ensure that students feel welcome from the beginning. Putney said officials host “Freshmen Adventure,” in which students do team-building exercises outside with their homeroom classmates and teachers.

“It’s kind of a way for everyone to hit the ground running and get to know each other,” Putney said.

Putney said the reason the students are successful in high school is because retention efforts start immediately in their transition to high school.

For students who may be struggling in one area or another, the school offers access to several specialized programs that meet their needs.

Putney said they offer a program for students with social and emotional issues, a program for students who are complex medically or cognitively, a program for credit recovery and several others.

Though the data proved to be mainly positive, board members reflected on what else could be done to help students stay in the district and graduate.

“I feel the most growth for us in a district come in our challenges,” board member Brandi Nunez said after Putney had finished presenting. “What are the barriers that some students might have that would cause one to leave our district and choose not to?”

Board member Cinda Guagliumi said what she sees is a declining trend in the graduation rate.

“It does beg the question of what else do we need to do?” Guagliumi said.

Student representative Johanna Koroma suggested a mental health initiative.

“I’ve seen several of my classmates dropout of school – and it was due to situations that caused them to have mental problems such as depression, anxiety, which I think is so prevalent in our society, they’re almost undermined. I would like to see some sort of mental health initiative in our school with a specific focus on helping kids who have those sort of issues at home,” Koroma said. “I think that would help with the retention rates and supporting high schools.”

School Board Chair Shannon Barnes said they do have social emotional curriculum implemented in grades 1-8 to help students to better learn to navigate the stresses in their lives while in the classroom.

Grace Pecci may be reached at 594-1243 or gpecci@nashuatelegraph.com.