West student beats odds to graduate, boosts Graduation Matters efforts

2012-06-02T21:08:00Z 2012-06-03T05:34:04Z West student beats odds to graduate, boosts Graduation Matters effortsBy ROB ROGERS rrogers@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

When it comes to education, Ryan Lafko wanted to try the five-year plan. But in high school, there is no five-year plan.

"I was gonna ask them for another year (to graduate), but they said no," he said.

So instead, Lafko took 10 classes — nearly double the regular load — in his last semester at West High and graduated with his class last weekend to raucous applause from his classmates.

That size of a workload was a first for the high school. It also caught the attention of the Graduation Matters campaign.

"Kids like Ryan give us energy and motivation," said Julie Wentworth, chairwoman for the Graduation Matters Billings board.

Graduation Matters is a state program designed to cut Montana’s dropout rate in half by 2014. It focuses on bringing community stakeholders together with schools and students to help high-schoolers want to stay in class.

Billings adopted a local model in November and then received a $10,000 grant from the state in March to support the program.

So Ryan wasn't a product of the program, but he's quickly become a case study for the Graduation Matters group studying School District 2's graduation policies.

Ryan's graduation was no easy task. He and his mother, Jody Lafko, mentor Linda Maio, father Stephen Lafko and a whole host of teachers, were all challenged more than they expected by the experience.

"We worked long hours," Maio said.

Maio, a retired English teacher from West and a family friend, tutored Ryan for hours on weekends. Most nights, Ryan had his additional classes. Jody Lafko worked with district and school officials to make sure Ryan got the permission and the support he'd need to pull off such a stunt, planning weekly meetings between Ryan and many of his teachers.

On top of it, Ryan's had troubles of his own. He's had discipline issues with the school and conflicts with those around him. All last semester he held down a part-time job, and earlier in the year he moved out of his mom's house and has been sleeping on friends' couches ever since. 

As such, the district considers Ryan homeless.

"I was gonna drop out," he said. Twice he filled out the forms required, "but no one would ever sign them."

Everyone around him -- Ryan included -- admits he's done almost everything the hard way.

Still, he graduated.

Wentworth points to the experience as a strong example of what happens when at-risk teens have a strong support system. The challenge for Graduation Matters will be finding ways to recreate that support system for the teens who wouldn't otherwise have it.

"It's got to be community centered, community specific," Wentworth said.

Much of the Graduation Matters work will be carried out by community partners including SD2, the Education Foundation for Billings Public Schools, United Way of Yellowstone County, the Billings Area Chamber of Commerce, Montana State University-Billings and Rocky Mountain College.

This first year, a group has gone over SD2 policies, looking at what aids graduation and what hinders it. For that reason, Ryan's experience has been instructive.

No student had ever attempted to do what Ryan wanted to do, so there was some opposition from the school and from the district when Ryan started out, Jody Lafko said.

Lafko was once a special education teacher and knew how to navigate the bureaucratic waters of the school system, she said.

"I've always know how to advocate," she said.

Studying the experience, Wentworth said the Graduation Matters committee will be able to see where the system can be improved.

As Graduation Matters Billings moves forward, the group will organize listening groups this summer to meet with at-risk students to learn what issues they face, how they view graduation and what they think they need as help.

That will help Graduation Matters Billings create its strategic plan for improving the area's graduation rate.

"It's a process," Wentworth said. "I don't think any of us realized what a process it would be."

With the experience now behind him, Ryan isn't afraid to express some ambivalence at the accomplishment. He reminds people his grades weren't stellar and that the only reason he pushed for graduation was because he couldn't drop out.

Still, he gets defensive when people try to play down his graduation or suggest that it wasn't earned. He did the work and he got it done, he said.

"I didn't let anything get in my way," he said, defensiveness giving an edge to his voice.

"It was quite a feat on his part," said West High Principal Dave Cobb.

On Thursday, Ryan applied and got a job with Billings Precast, a local concrete company.

On the application, it asked if he was a high school graduate. And for a brief moment, as he filled out the form, the thought flitted through his head that had he not graduated, he wouldn't have been able to check the box, likely making him a much less attractive candidate.

Maio, Ryan's tutor, knows the further he gets away from his graduation, the more it will mean to him and the more he'll come to appreciate how important it is.

"It was worth it," she said.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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