Maryland's high school graduation rate has been climbing steadily for the past four years and reached nearly 85 percent — far above the national average — this past June, according to data released Tuesday.
More students from every corner of the state are staying in school to earn a diploma, but the increases were most pronounced among Hispanic and African-American students.
State education officials credited the passage of Maryland's Dream Act, which gave hope to Hispanic students who want to attend college in the state, as one of the factors for the 2.5 percentage point increase in the graduation rate for Hispanics.
The Dream Act, which offers in-state tuition to undocumented college students, "has given a level of hope and possibilities for the future," said state school Superintendent Lillian Lowery.
The use of technology and online classes in helping students catch up as well as a general sense among parents that a high school diploma is necessary for any job have also helped boost the graduation rates, officials said.
Statewide, the graduation rate is up 1 percentage point from last year, to 84.97. In addition, the dropout rate has fallen to 9.3 percent, the lowest on record.
"The challenge now is: What is it going to take to get everyone to 90 percent or higher, and can we do that any quicker than 1 point a year," said Robert Balfanz, co-director of the Everyone Graduates Center, which researches and analyzes national graduation and dropout trends. "There is no job to support a family in the 21st century without a high school diploma. We need to be preparing at least 9 out of 10 of our students for that reality."
Balfanz said Maryland's upward trend in the last three to four years mirrors the nation's.
The national graduation rate for the class of 2010 was 78 percent, the latest data available. Vermont graduated 91.4 percent of students, the highest rate in the country.
Balfanz said Maryland's increases in the rates for minority and special education graduates were particularly encouraging.
The graduation rate for African-Americans rose nearly 2 percentage points to 78.3 percent, and the rate for students who are economically disadvantaged was 75.8 percent.
Baltimore, Baltimore County and Howard County had some of the largest increases in the graduation rate. Howard County increased its four-year graduation rate to 93.25 percent, up nearly 3 percentage points. Baltimore and Baltimore County rose 2 percentage points and 2.5 percentage points, respectively.
After he arrived 18 months ago, Baltimore County Superintendent Dallas Dance made a strategic plan to help students catch up who were just a few credits shy of graduation and to address the dropout rate. City officials said they have spent the past two years focused on improving instruction, adding a more demanding curriculum and encouraging more students to go to college.
At Overlea High School in Baltimore County, which has a high percentage of minority students, the graduation rate rose from 75.4 percent to 81.2 percent in one year.
Overlea Principal Marquis Dwarte said the district made sure every school had a committee that met regularly to focus on how to help students who were in danger of dropping out and "engage families and students in a conversation saying they are not on track to graduate."
Baltimore County's graduation rate increase was the largest single-year gain in four years and a jump of nearly 5 percentage points in three years. Only three of the county's 24 high schools didn't see gains, and two of those already have rates over 98 percent.
Nearly every demographic group saw increases in the county, and the gap between the percentage of white and black graduates narrowed to less than 3 percentage points. There were large jumps for students whose second language is English, as well as special education students.
Mark T. Bedell, assistant superintendent for high schools in Baltimore County, has taken the charge personally, going to schools to tell students his own story of growing up the eldest of eight children among "a lot of poverty, neglect and abuse."
He has encouraged students to stay in school and said he hopes to make a home visit to a student who dropped out just one credit shy of graduation to support a new baby. He would like to persuade the student to come back and finish.
Bedell said the school system has successfully spread its use of online classes to students who have fallen behind. For example, a student who enters senior year having failed some classes can catch up by taking online classes during school hours. In addition, teachers have worked in small classes after school and on Saturdays to teach students concepts they were lacking so they could catch up.
"You have to care to give up your afternoons and Saturdays to work with kids to make sure they have a high school diploma," he said.