Gazette opinion: Let’s keep dropping the dropout rate

2013-01-24T00:00:00Z Gazette opinion: Let’s keep dropping the dropout rate The Billings Gazette
January 24, 2013 12:00 am

Last week, the Montana superintendent of public instruction delivered good news on high school graduation. Montana’s dropout rate has dropped again.

In 2009, 2,423 Montana high school students dropped out for a statewide rate of 5.1 percent. In 2012, 4.1 percent of Montana high school students dropped out; that was 1,841 students.

While cheering the improvement, Superintendent Denise Juneau is pushing to keep more students in school until they graduate.

She has championed Graduation Matters, a program that helps local communities set up their own graduation initiatives. So far, 28 communities, including Billings, have Graduation Matters projects.

In Missoula, which pioneered Graduation Matters, all high schools had 2012 dropout rates well below the state average: Hellgate 3.7 percent, Sentinel 2 percent, Seeley-Swan zero, Big Sky 1.9 percent.

In Bozeman, which was an early Graduation Matters participant, the 2012 dropout rate was 2.7 percent.

Billings Public Schools don’t compare well to those AA schools with 2012 dropout rates of 6.7 percent at Senior, 4.4 percent at West and 3.4 percent at Skyview. Central Catholic High School had zero dropouts.

Billings schools are working in collaboration with the Education Foundation for Billings Public Schools, United Way, Billings Chamber of Commerce, Montana State University Billings, Rocky Mountain College and agencies serving youth to tackle the dropout problem in the state’s largest school district. We support and commend their efforts.

The Montana Legislature also must support dropout prevention. Two measures up for Senate committee hearings Wednesday would help whittle down those dropout rates.

- Senate Bill 13 would require students to stay in school until their 18th birthday or graduation, whichever occurs first. Montana’s 90-year-old law requires school attendance from age 7 to age 16. Importantly, SB13 provides that attaining a GED counts as graduation, and that students are complying with the law if they are home schooled, enrolled in private school, enrolled in an adult basic education program, in the Montana youth challenge program, Montana Job Corps, an accredited post-secondary program or a registered apprenticeship program.

Raising the legal dropout age won’t prevent all dropouts, but it does give educators and parents more leverage in persuading students to complete the education they will need to succeed in the 21st century.

- Senate Bill 14 would add 19-year-old students to the enrollment count eligible for state per-student funding. Present law says that the state won’t fund students who are 19 by Sept. 10 of the school year. In Billings about 30 students a year wind up in this category because they had to repeat a grade or had some other educational delay.

Statewide last year, schools reported 120 students who were 19 in the fall semester, according to the fiscal note for SB14. If SB14 became law, the state would have to pay Montana schools an estimated $404,000 in the 2013-2014 academic year.

Our schools already have these costs as they strive to graduate students ready for life and work.

The 19-year-old funding cutoff pressures schools to promote students even when they haven’t learned the skills needed to advance. Educators are keenly aware that repeating a grade will mean that a student won’t graduate with his class and won’t graduate before state funding runs out.

The cost of high school dropouts is a lifetime of lower earnings and higher rates of unemployment, higher risk of criminal activity and dependence on the welfare system.

Lawmakers should support efforts to reduce dropouts because it’s good for individuals and good for our state. Montana should stop condoning 16-year-old dropouts. Montana should help schools help 19-year-olds complete their high school education.

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