To make the biggest difference in Montana graduation rates, start with schools that have the most students.
That’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau’s reason for convening representatives of AA districts this summer and visiting all seven of the state’s largest school districts.
Every year, about 2,000 Montana students drop out before graduation. In 2010, the AA high schools lost 981 students, according to the Office of Public Instruction.
Billings Public Schools, with half again as many high school students at the next largest district (Missoula), unfortunately had the largest number of dropouts: 268. Missoula had 90, Great Falls 210.
In 2008, according to OPI data, the Billings and Missoula school districts had the same dropout rate; 5.1 percent of their student bodies dropped out that year.
But two years later, Missoula schools had cut their dropout rate in half — to 2.5 percent. A total of 90 students dropped out of Missoula’s three public high schools that year compared with 197 dropouts two years earlier.
A community initiative, Graduation Matters Missoula, is credited with the positive change. The public school district partnered with local government and business leaders as well as the University of Montana on an array of efforts to connect students to their schools and community.
The dropout rate went down 47 percent in just one year. Another measure of student success, the high school completion rate, also improved from 75 percent in 2008 to 87 percent in 2010 at Hellgate High School in Missoula. The completion rate is the percentage of the class entering ninth grade together that eventually graduates.
The 2010 completion rate at Billings high schools was 78 percent at Senior, 83 percent at West and 81 percent at Skyview.
Graduation Matters Missoula has been going for two years now. In Bozeman, Graduation Matters Gallatin Valley was launched last year, as a broad community initiative that includes Montana State University and local business and government leaders. One facet of the effort is “Take 5,” a project that assigns five at-risk students to a high school faculty member who talks with the students in person and also phones them if they don’t show up for school.
Research has demonstrated that having a caring adult in their lives keeps kids in school, Juneau said.
All of the Graduation Matters initiatives involve connection with higher education, she said. The link to two-year colleges is especially important.
“This is about not just graduation from high school, but graduating career and college ready,” Juneau said.
Kalispell has added graduation coaches at its two high schools as part of its dropout prevention effort.
Helena public schools last week announced a graduation promotion in cooperation with United Way and the Helena Education Foundation.
Butte is planning a launch while Great Falls and Billings recently convened stakeholders meetings. In Billings, the stakeholders included the Chamber of Commerce.
“This has to be a community effort from the grass roots,” Juneau said. “Every adult has a role to play.”
She also encourages students to take responsibility for their own futures. She formed a teen advisory council that has given her good ideas for Graduation Matters, such as the “I pledge to graduate” campaign. Students in the Billings Public Schools summer Indian education program were among the first to make that pledge, she said. This group of students, who entered ninth grade last month, first signed pledges — in front of witnesses — that they will graduate from high school.
After working to start Graduation Matters in the largest schools, Juneau is enthusiastic about involving smaller schools, too.
Information on the pledge campaign and other resources for starting Graduation Matters in your community are online at graduationmatters.mt.gov.
Check it out. Find out what you can do to make graduation matter for all Montana students.