Gazette opinion: Dropout rates edge down, but not enough

2011-06-13T00:10:00Z Gazette opinion: Dropout rates edge down, but not enough The Billings Gazette
June 13, 2011 12:10 am

Montana’s dropout rate has dropped.

That’s the good news from the Office of Public Instruction in Helena, which has just finished analyzing graduation and dropout data for 2009-2010.

Four hundred thirteen fewer Montana students dropped out that year than did in the previous year. The high school dropout rate decreased by 0.8 percentage point to 4.3 percent.

The most dramatic improvement was a 2 percentage point reduction in the dropout rate for American Indian girls.

“Making dropout prevention a statewide priority is starting to pay off for Montana students,” said Denise Juneau, state superintendent of public instruction. “We know that a high school diploma is necessary for an individual’s economic success. It’s important to keep this positive momentum going.”

Juneau has launched Graduation Matters Montana to involve communities in promoting high school completion and assembled a teen advisory council to suggest stay-in-school strategies. The revision of K-12 core curriculum standards now under way is designed to deliver more relevant and rigorous courses to appropriately challenge all students.

In Billings, the state’s largest school district, 268 students dropped out of public high schools in the 2009-2010 academic year. That is a shockingly high number. However, it’s an improvement over the previous year when 296 left school before graduating. (See box above for more details.)

Looking at the numbers in a different way, OPI calculated that 80.2 percent of the class of 2010 graduated “on time,” having started ninth grade four years earlier. The graduation rate for Montana’s American Indian students was only 59 percent.

The class of 2010 included 9,817 public high school graduates in Montana, but 2,203 other students dropped out before graduation. The class of 2010 included 807 American Indian graduates, and lost 512 others who dropped out. These high school dropouts included 1,151 boys and 859 girls.

Dropout rates for American Indian high school students are highest in the state’s largest high schools (1,250 students or more). OPI reports the statewide dropout rate for American Indian students in the biggest highs schools averaged 13.5 percent over the past five years.

Over the past five years, American Indian dropout rates have increased in both the largest high schools and in the smallest (fewer than 200 students). Meanwhile, high schools with 400 to 1,249 students recorded decreases in American Indian dropouts.

Clearly, there’s work to be done. Juneau has invited AA districts to meet next month in Helena to share information on best practices for preventing dropouts.

Billings and the other AA districts have the biggest dropout counts for Indian and non-Indian students. Thus, they can — and must — make the greatest gains by keeping more at-risk students on track for graduation.

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