Over the next several weeks, Billings residents will hear a lot about their K-8 public schools. They should know that the high schools also are getting community attention.
Graduation Matters Billings, a project launched as part of a statewide effort to reduce dropouts and boost graduation rates, has been working diligently.
Using detailed dropout data compiled by Billings Public Schools, Graduation Matters members, including United Way staff and the Education Foundation for Billings Public Schools, identified issues that the data show relate to dropping out. They devised questions to talk to community members about those issues. Since last fall, a host of organizations and volunteers has conducted 43 listening sessions involving more than 300 students, dropouts, parents and educators.
Among the questions asked were:
- If there was one thing you could do to improve attendance, what would you do?
- If there was one thing you could do to make sure every student passes core classes, what would it be?
Surprisingly, one response common to all listening session groups was concern about large class size, according to Kristin Lundgren of United Way.
“Students who are struggling said they won’t raise their hands if the class is too big,” Lundgren said, noting that teachers expressed frustration at the difficulty of helping all who need help in a large class. Students who are doing well said struggling students need smaller classes.
“Another common theme was lack of alternative pathways,” Lundgren said. “Kids who hate math get more math. They fail and have to take it again.”
Billings has some good alternative programs, but they serve relatively few students in a very large district. The Transitions program at Lincoln Center works great for students who weren’t succeeding in the regular high schools, but there’s always a waiting list. Credit recovery programs can help students get back on track, but first they have to fail the class.
Students who are thriving as well as those who had dropped out wanted to learn at their own pace, Lundgren said. They didn’t want to be left behind by the rest of the class; they didn’t want to be held back when they had mastered the subject.
The analysis of the listening session data is under way and Lundgren plans to have a report for the Graduation Matters steering committee in May.
We commend the organizations that facilitated listening sessions: Education Foundation, United Way, Head Start, Youth Court Services, Montana State University Billings, Rocky Mountain College, Yellowstone AIDS Project, Boys and Girls Club, Big Brothers Big Sisters and Center for Children and Families.
Billings Public School educators also volunteered with the project. Importantly, Superintendent Terry Bouck has participated in Graduation Matters meetings since coming to Billings last summer.
Another Graduation Matters founding member is the Billings Chamber of Commerce, which has launched new efforts to involve the community in improving our public schools. Billings developer Steve Corning and banker Lyle Knight joined forces to push for quality education. The Yes for Kids volunteers are taking K-8 levies information door to door.
The energy of these community efforts must be sustained. We look forward to seeing community groups work together for the best interests of our 16,000 K-12 students. Dropouts are a community issue, not only a school issue. Community involvement is crucial to ensure that graduation matters to all our students.