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Billings business leaders and educators on Thursday pledged to address School District 2's drop-out rate.

The drop-out rate “is embarrassing,” said Lyle Knight, who moderated a panel discussion on the state of education in Billings.

The state's Office of Public Instruction has adjusted the way it calculates the drop-out rate and will release the new rates next week, said SD2's new Superintendent Terry Bouck.

Speaking during the annual meeting of the Billings Chamber of Commerce Convention and Visitors Bureau, Knight urged chamber members to get involved with their local schools, and support mill levies and bond issues. The public should also recruit the best candidates for the school board, and then hold the district accountable, said Knight, who retired recently as chief executive officer for First Interstate Bank.

Many who attended a wide-ranging panel discussion expressed surprise at the dropout rate. Bouck estimated the rate may translate into about 94 students from each of the three Billings public high schools last year.

Thursday's discussion touched on a variety of topics, including concerns that American students are lagging behind their peers in other countries, and how some believe that larger school districts such as Billings are shortchanged within the state’s complicated school funding system.

In response to a question from the audience, Bouck rejected the notion that some students would fare just as well if they opted to drop out of high school and instead get a GED. A GED is not the same as a high school diploma, he said.

Cecilia Retelle, senior director of policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said that while it’s important to boost graduation rates, a diploma must mean something.

“If you’re giving diplomas out to kids who can’t read and do simple math, you haven’t done them any favors,” Retelle said.

It has been nearly 30 years since President Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education published “A Nation at Risk,” a wide-ranging study that warned that the nation’s education system was failing. But problems persist despite years of efforts to improve education. Students from the United States currently rank 17th in the world in science and 25th in math when compared to their peers in other countries, Retelle said.

Dennis Parman, deputy superintendent for the Montana OPI, said the state is working hard to reduce the dropout rate. Billings and many other districts are participating in Graduation Matters Montana, a statewide initiative that aims to halve the dropout rate.

As part of the program, every high school junior is eligible to take the ACT college entrance exam. “We want to show more students that they’re college ready,” Parman said.

In laying out his vision for Billings Public Schools, Bouck pledged that the district would be accountable and transparent in its decision making. The district will emphasize rigorous classroom instruction, and expectations are high for all students, he said.

On the other hand, the district will strive to engage students. “We need to make sure what we teach is relative to them,” Bouck said.

Enrollment is on the upswing in School District 2, with 300 more students this year. But under the current school funding system, no additional state funding is being provide, Bouck said.

When asked how the business community can help, the superintendent said the district must remain in close contact with the business community. “We need to reach out and ask what their needs are, to ask for some kind of feedback so we can focus on meeting their needs,” he said.