Gazette opinion: Let's work together to keep Billings kids in school

2012-01-29T00:00:00Z Gazette opinion: Let's work together to keep Billings kids in school The Billings Gazette
January 29, 2012 12:00 am

Local leaders of business, education and human services are forging a new partnership to raise the Billings high school graduation rate.

Several dozen people gathered last week at Lincoln Center to launch Graduation Matters Billings. They represented education ranging from early childhood to university level. Public and private agencies that work with children and families in crisis attended. Bruce MacIntyre represented the Billings Chamber of Commerce, which is one of the founding partners of Graduation Matters Billings. Other founding partners are: Education Foundation for Billings Public Schools, United Way of Yellowstone County, Billings Public Schools, Montana State University Billings and Rocky Mountain College. Billings Education Association President Jeff Greenfield participated, as did SD2 Trustee Pam Ellis.

The urgent need for action was obvious from data compiled by the state Office of Public Instruction and research by Carrie Miller of the school district:

  • Billings’ high school graduation rate dropped between 2008 and 2011, even as the state rate held steady at 82 percent. In 2008, 84 percent of the Billings students graduated four years after starting ninth grade. In 2011, that number had dwindled to 77 percent.
  • In the 2010-2011 school year, 237 students dropped out of grades 9-12 in Billings. Just over 50 percent of them were boys. Seventy-eight percent were white, 12 percent Native American and 7 percent Hispanic.
  • Thirty percent of the dropouts didn’t have enough credits to complete the freshman year, but only 27 of them (11 percent) were under age 17.

Clearly, the district needs to reduce the dropout rate and improve the graduation rate. It’s important to note the differences in those measurements. The graduation rate as defined by federal law is based on the number of graduates receiving a high school diploma within four years. The dropout rate provides a snapshot of what happened in one year.

From the data already available, it’s clear that problems before high school are factors in dropouts.

Early intervention is critical, Superintendent Jack Copps said, noting that many children start school without the readiness or support needed to be successful.

“It’s a lot harder to intervene with a seventh-grader,” he said. “It’s a lot better to start when they are 3, 4, 5 years old.”

In just the past month, SD2 has moved forward with several projects to help students succeed and, ultimately, to graduate. Thanks to United Way, Yellowstone County Boys & Girls Club and Friendship House of Christian Service, all middle school students have access to free, after school homework assistance. An after-school credit recovery program for grades 9-12 won’t start till Feb. 6, but its 75 slots filled up within five days of applications going out to students.

“That’s an indication that we do have a lot of students who want to catch up,” Copps said.

Plans for next school year include “late-in” on Wednesdays with “immediate remediation” offered to all students who need it at 8 a.m. Students who haven’t been referred for help would be able to come in “late” for the 9:15 start of regular classes. Dave Cobb, principal at West High, said that early Wednesday time slot also would be used for teacher teams to work together on best practices. The schedule for buses, breakfast and early-bird classes would be the same on Wednesday as on other days.

What Graduation Matters Billings needs now is community support. The founding partners are asking other Billings businesses and organizations to become “community partners.”

All that’s required is for the leader of the organization to fill out a brief form stating support for the project and pledging to advance the goal of graduation as it can. There’s no financial or time commitment required.

Considering that the Chamber of Commerce is a founding partner, it would be great to see its member businesses sign on as community partners. Dozens of local businesses and civic organizations are already involved with Partners in Education through the education foundation. We call on those partners to affirm their ongoing support of our public schools by becoming community partners in Graduation Matters Billings. Likewise, the many agencies that work with United Way can add their names and support to dropout prevention.

Please check the box above for information and become part of making graduation matter for every Billings student.

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