Spurred by work at other AA school districts and the urging of Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau, Billings Public Schools has begun considering how a community dropout prevention effort could work here.
Carrie Miller, who works on special projects for the district, has been tasked with coordinating Graduation Matters Billings. So far, two meetings have been held with high school and central office administrators and representatives of the Foundation for Billings Public Schools, Chamber of Commerce, Big Sky Economic Development Authority and United Way. Miller recognizes that many more stakeholders will have to be involved in a successful prevention program.
Education is very important to chamber members, said Bruce MacIntyre, director of governmental affairs.
“Our members get them (students) after the school district is done with them. We want the most skilled, most educated workforce for our businesses.
“Those who don’t graduate are more at risk for problems down the road and business shares those risks,” MacIntyre said, noting that people who don’t graduate from high school are more likely to become homeless, incarcerated or addicted to drugs.
“If we could move the needle on this issue, we could potentially move the needle on every issue you care about,” said Kristin Lundgren, who works with youth prevention programs through United Way of Yellowstone County.
In addition to after-school programs serving a dozen elementary and middle schools, United Way helps support numerous local nonprofits that assist children and families with many basic needs.
Dropout prevention has long been a goal of the United Way of Yellowstone County. Cutting dropout rates in half is a goal of the United Way Worldwide.
Other communities have cut their dropout rates in half. In just one year, Missoula public schools reduced their number of dropouts by 47 percent after launching an intensive community campaign in partnership with the University of Montana, local government and other organizations.
This is a challenging time for Billings Public Schools as trustees switch superintendents in the middle of the academic year. However, Graduation Matters Billings is a great opportunity for trustees and the new (yet to be named) interim superintendent to demonstrate their commitment to student success.
Of course, Billings schools are doing lots of things to keep kids in school and on track for graduation. For example, counselors from Tumbleweed and Rimrock Foundation are in the three high schools working with students identified as at-risk for dropping out or abusing drugs. Volunteers from local businesses and civic organizations help in schools in various ways through Partners in Education.
However, all current efforts failed to prevent 268 students from dropping out in 2010.
Progress will require commitment from a wide range of community members. The school and community efforts to help our children graduate must be more effective. Help must reach each child who needs it K-12.
Billings doesn’t have to invent a new program. Proven prevention strategies already exist, such as mentoring all struggling students, ensuring that all students are reading at grade level by the end of third grade and that all students start school ready for kindergarten.
We call on local business, government and higher education leaders to join the public schools in tackling the dropout problem. If you don’t get a call to help, call Carrie Miller and ask what you can do. Support the Chamber and United Way goals to improve education through your membership and donations.