Prince George’s schools chief Kevin M. Maxwell, with Fairmont Heights High Principal Torrie Walker, said the district has started to implement a strategy that includes additional support for at-risk students. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post )

As most school districts across the Washington region and the nation experienced rising high school graduation rates during the past decade — including the highest national graduation rate in history — Prince George’s County continued to lag behind in its effort to get students a diploma, moving against the national trend.

The graduation rate in Prince George’s inched up slightly from 2012 to 2013. But the percentage of students who graduated on time in 2013 — 74.1 percent — was lower than the 76.2 percent rate 2010, leaving the county 10 percentage points behind the Maryland statewide average. In 2012, average U.S. graduation rates rose to 80 percent, a high-water mark. Graduation rates for 2014 are not available.

High school graduation rates are a visible measure of school success, and educators in the county agree that for the Prince George’s school system to improve its standing in the Washington region it has to reduce the number of students who drop out and increase the number of students who graduate within four years.

“We’re behind,” schools chief Kevin M. Maxwell said. “There’s not a question that we’re behind.”

Maxwell said the district has started to implement a strategy to increase graduation rates that includes a focus on literacy, in all grades and content levels, and additional supports for at-risk students.

School Board Chairman Segun Eubanks said the district has to improve its rate among its most vulnerable students, many of whom come from poor families and speak limited English.

The graduation rate for Hispanic students in the Prince George’s rose 3.6 percentage points, to 60.8 percent, last year, but the rate still lags nearly 20 percentage points behind the national average and 14 percentage points behind the county’s overall average.

“We need to do better with our limited English proficiency and FARM [free and reduced meals] students, and if we don’t, we are not going to be able to turn it around,” Eubanks said.

Maxwell said the district’s diverse population, with nearly 65 percent of students from poor families, cannot be used as an excuse for the county’s low graduation rate.

“Poverty is a reality and not an excuse,” Maxwell said. But he said the struggles of English-language learners are “more of an issue,” because the students are facing problems with comprehension.

Maxwell partly blames the county’s low graduation rates on the school district’s inability to address the needs of students as they make the transition from middle to high school. That transition can spell trouble for students on the edge and can precipitate dropping out.

Adrian Cotton and Alexandra Benjamin graduated in May from Crossland High School in Prince George’s County, but unlike the majority of the 7,848 students in the county who walked across stages to receive their diplomas, Cotton is 19 and Benjamin is 21.

Both were dropouts who returned to Crossland’s evening school to earn their diplomas.

And while the two are examples of the school district’s successful effort to give students who abandoned school another opportunity to get an education, they also are symbolic of the challenge that faces Prince George’s as it moves to turn around its school system.

Cotton said he started to have “distractions” when he reached high school. He moved from Camp Springs to Fort Washington and had difficulty adjusting.

There were girls, he said, and he wanted to hang out with the older crowd, including his brother and his friends, who were cutting school. His brother had some problems with some other students, which meant Cotton had problems with them too.

“When I was in school, I was hanging in the halls,” Cotton said. “I just never went to class.”

His brother graduated after attending summer school. Cotton dropped out. He said there were no distractions to worry about at night school, and he ultimately earned his diploma. He now works in his “first real serious job” as an administrative assistant.

Sito Narcisse, the county’s associate superintendent for high school performance, said Prince George’s has been looking at how students are promoted and is focusing on getting students through the ninth grade. The district has found a correlation between ninth-grade promotion and the graduation rate.

Narcisse said the district is examining suspension rates and is providing teachers with more planning time to work individually with students. The district has increased its online blended learning classes and credit recovery, much like other school systems in the region.

A year ago, Prince George’s students who failed certain classes in 17 schools could recover credit by taking an online course. Now the program is available in all 24 high schools and open for more courses, Narcisse said.

“We’ve done a poor job on ninth-grade promotion rates,” Maxwell said. “We have to increase opportunities for kids when they fall behind.”

One in four students failed ninth grade in Prince George’s in 2013 — nearly a mirror image of the overall graduation rate.

“I don’t think we have had enough clarity and enough focus,” Maxwell said. “We have to change some of what we are doing to get different outcomes.”

Benjamin, who attended Langley High School in Fairfax County before dropping out of Crossland, said leaving school early did not seem unusual for students in Prince George’s. Unlike in Fairfax, she said she knew many others who left without earning a diploma.

“It’s back to the support system,” said Benjamin, whose mother died when she was 9 and whose father lives in Jamaica. She said too many students have family members who didn’t finish high school, and some have family members who are in jail. She said some students ask themselves: “What do I need to go to high school for?”

Benjamin ended up with an overall 2.2 grade point average, but she earned a 3.6 grade point average during her senior year. She is headed to Trinity University in the fall and wants to major in psychology or human relations.

“When I went into evening high school, I went in with a different attitude,” Benjamin said. “I went in and did my work and went home.”