Gazette opinion: Success strategy, One size doesn't fit all students

2011-11-20T00:10:00Z Gazette opinion: Success strategy, One size doesn't fit all students The Billings Gazette
November 20, 2011 12:10 am

Norma Stene’s Senior High School classroom is a dropout prevention center. During second period, 13 students work at their own pace on computers. Their lessons vary from algebra 1 to English 3, U.S. history, earth science and biology.

Welcome to NovaNet, where technology and individual attention from Stene help students “recover” credits they failed to earn in regular classes.

“Some kids excel in here that wouldn’t in regular classrooms,” Stene said.

Last year, about 225 Senior students completed about 400 credits through NovaNet, including 30 seniors who were then able to graduate with the class of 2011. A NovaNet program for all Billings high schools served 300 students last summer.

Struggling students also have access to programs that boost reading and math, thanks to federal Title 1 funding. All Billings high schools have Tumbleweed and Rimrock Foundation counselors to assist with family crises and addiction issues.

Billings public high schools have fewer teachers this year than last, slightly fewer elective classes and larger classes in required courses. Senior High has about a dozen fewer teachers, according to Principal Dennis Holmes.

Nevertheless, the school is moving forward. Thanks to a voted technology levy, all Billings high schools have added computers and other electronic educational resources in the past few years.

For the past four years, Senior High has been part of the Successful Practices Network, a national coalition of schools selected for their commitment to reforms that improve student achievement. That includes using teaching strategies based on researched best practices. The focus is on academic rigor, relevance and positive relationships with students.

“Change is not prescriptive,” Holmes said. “It’s ‘figure out what works for you and get really good at it.’ “

One initiative that sprang from Successful Practices Network is a cross-curricular writing program that involves every student. Last year, Senior High saw its biggest annual improvement ever in scores on the MontCAS, the statewide test that fulfills the federal No Child Left Behind mandate.

“Our ultimate goal is student achievement,” Holmes said.

That means meeting needs of struggling, average and advanced students. For students who need extra academic challenges, Senior offers the Platinum Program, which will recognize students who complete a list of honors or advanced college placement courses. Also, more than 40 Senior students are enrolled in University Connections, taking classes at Montana State University Billings.

“We have a percentage of students who need to be challenged,” Holmes said. “We have to stretch every single opportunity we can for our students to keep them interested and in school.”

More than 200 Senior students spend at least part of their day at the Career Center, because they want the hands-on classes. Among students who choose the Career Center, fewer drop out, Holmes said.

“Career Center students are more successful because it matches their learning style,” Holmes aid.

He spent Wednesday morning showcasing his school for guests participating in Educator for a Day, an annual event sponsored by the Education Foundation for Billings Public Schools. This year’s event brought dozens of business people and community leaders into Billings Public Schools for a morning with a focus on dropout prevention. Later, Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau spoke to the group about the statewide initiative “Graduation Matters Montana.”

Juneau has called for local schools to work toward cutting their dropout rates in half by 2014. Statewide, about 2,000 students drop out each year. Billings, the state’s largest district, had 268 dropouts in 2010.

Billings Public Schools are doing many things K-12 that help keep at-risk kids in school. However, the schools must do better. Two hundred sixty-eight dropouts is way too many

Speaking at Montana State University Billings, Juneau challenged Educator for a Day participants to get involved with their schools as volunteers.

“Any time you spend with kids is so important,” she said. “I know that we can do better in our state, but it will take each of us working together to cut the dropout rate in half by 2014.”

Parents, grandparents and other concerned community members must help. Please check the box above to see how to get started.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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