The three Manchester high schools have dropout rates that far exceed nearly every other high school in the state, according to data released by state education officials.
Manchester West High School had the highest dropout rate in the state - a four-year cumulative rate of 18 percent in 2012. The rate represents what will happen to the freshman class of 2011-12 over four years if nothing changes.
"It's tragic. It's not acceptable," said John Rist, the retired principal who took over at West on a part-time basis after MaryEllen McGorry resigned in January.
Another Manchester principal blamed the economy.
"The one thing we find, the economy has forced people to make decisions that were more financial than educational," said Arthur Adamakos, principal at Memorial High School, which saw its one-year dropout rate double. Adamakos also blamed the increase on a one-time adjustment.
Last week, the state Department of Education released dropout rates for the 2011-12 school year. Overall, state officials said they were pleased. Although the New Hampshire rate went up slightly - the one-year rate for 2012 was 1.26 percent, up from 1.19 percent in 2011 - the state continues to have one of the lowest dropout rates in the country.
"The data contained in this report shows the schools continue to make progress in ensuring more of our young people receive their diploma. It also shows our intensive efforts to identify and reach those most at risk have been successful," Education Commissioner Virginia Barry said in prepared remarks.
She said it provides clear evidence of the effectiveness of dropout prevention programs put in place when the state raised the dropout age to 18.
Those programs don't seem to be working in Manchester. For the 2009-10 school year - the first year the higher dropout age went into effect - the city's four-year cumulative dropout rate was 9 percent. Last year, it was 13 percent.
Superintendent Thomas Brennan said he is "disturbed" by the Manchester numbers.
"I am upset, as anyone would be," said Brennan. "I wish I had a solid answer why, but I've said there should be more done in terms of reading and math work at younger age levels, before third grade. That can help a student later, what they learn at that younger stage. I'm also hoping the audit that's going to be completed will point to some areas that we can work on. But it's very disturbing, and I'm very concerned about it."
A telephone message left for Mayor Ted Gatsas was not returned.
Paul Leather, the state's deputy education commissioner, said "it's fairly clear that Manchester has lost some ground."
He said he recognized Manchester has challenges, including "the transitional nature of many families living in poverty, one-parent families. They move around a lot (or don't have homes)."
Manchester had 129 dropouts for the 2009-10 school year, rising to 166 the following year and 197 for the 2011-12 year. New Hampshire, by comparison, had 778 for the 2009-10 year, 751 the following year and 778 again for 2011-12.
Franklin, Raymond, Monadnock Regional
The West rate was followed by Franklin High School at 13 percent, Central High School at 12 percent, and Memorial at 12 percent. Only two other New Hampshire high schools had four-year cumulative rates in double digits - Monadnock Regional and Raymond high schools, both at 10 percent.
The rate is adjusted not to count students who took the GED or enrolled in college without graduating.
Rist said socio-economic factors and language problems play a part in the West dropouts. But he said he needs a third assistant principal; part of the job is to track the 1,165 students at West.
In the meantime, Rist said he is trying to foster a climate to encourage success and urge students to attend school. He meets with parents whose children skip school. Some promise their children will be in school; others throw their hands up, he said.
Rist said core standards and curriculum need to be adopted and modified for the school. A team of experts was in the school Thursday to see how it can be restructured.
"We're having a conversation of how to do a better job," he said.
The Central rate actually dropped slightly from the previous year, but Memorial's shot up. In fact, the one-year dropout rate at Memorial doubled, to 3.2 percent.
Principal Arthur Adamakos blamed it on the increase in the dropout age. When the law went into effect, some dropouts older than 16 never returned to school. They were carried on the books for a while as students, but last year they were taken off and counted as dropouts.
"We knew there was one year we'd have to take the hit," he said.
Despite rising dropout rates that were already above the state average, Nashua Schools Superintendent Mark Conrad said he is proud of the work the Nashua School District is doing to ensure as many students graduate as possible.
Nashua's dropout rate increased from 5.71 percent in 2010 to 6.21 percent in 2011. The state average is 4.95 percent.
"As a community we have 42 percent of our students eligible for free and reduced (price) lunches, and some of those students are living in significant poverty, and dropout rates correlate with socio-economic demographics unfortunately," Conrad said.
However, Conrad said, Nashua's dropout rate is lower than most other municipalities in New Hampshire with similar levels of poverty.
"It reflects well on Nashua that we are all working hard to develop strong education environments to keep students in school and keep them successful," Conrad said.
Even with all the Nashua School District does to keep students in school, including offering multiple types of diplomas, Conrad said he's concerned that dropout rates in Nashua, along with the entire state, will start to go up at an alarming rate.
Conrad said the impetus for his fear was the elimination of the Children In Need of Supervision program by the previous state legislature.
"The elimination of that program has had a significant impact on student attendance, with a 30-percent increase in student truancy from last year to this year, and we think attendance plays a big role in dropout rates."
New Hampshire Union Leader Staff Reporter Paul Feely contributed to this story.