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Billings high school students who see a failing grade on their report cards this week will get a new chance to earn that credit — if they work for it after school.

Two months ago, a Gazette opinion highlighted a dropout prevention center at Billings Senior High where teacher Norma Stene spends the entire school day helping students successfully complete classes they had failed previously.

In that NovaNet classroom, technology and individual attention from Stene help students “recover” credits in a variety of core courses.

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 program for all Billings high schools served 300 students last summer.

Next month, Billings Public Schools will expand its credit recovery program by offering it after school. The district is in the process of hiring teachers to work from 4-6 p.m., Superintendent Jack Copps said last week. This pilot program will be located at Senior, but serve students from all three high schools. Funding will come from the schools’ budgets for serving at-risk students.

The new classes could serve up to 100 students, Senior Principal Dennis Holmes said. He credited senior teacher Nancy Story and guidance counselor Pam Johnson for suggesting the pilot.

Holmes expects the new program will allow some seniors to graduate who wouldn’t make it without this opportunity.

“I would rather hold a student accountable and get them out of here on time,” Holmes said.

The after-school classes are one promising idea for improving the graduation rate in Montana’s largest school district.

The district needs a comprehensive community plan to ensure that all students graduate and that all graduates are ready for work and postsecondary education.

“It’s at the top of my priority list,” Copps said when asked about the Graduation Matters Billings initiative. “We need to reach out to the community and pull this together.”

At 2:30 p.m. on Jan. 24, the school district will have a meeting to discuss Graduation Matters Billings. Carrie Miller, the district’s point person for the initiative, invites all interested community members to attend.

Falling behind in credits is one reason students drop out, Copps said. Billings loses quite a few seniors in their last semester, Copps noted. It also loses students in the freshman year.

Clearly, multiple solutions will be required to whittle the number of dropouts by half, a goal set by Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau when she launched Graduation Matters Montana.

However, success is definitely achievable. After starting a communitywide dropout prevention effort called Graduation Matters Missoula, that district saw its dropout rate plunge 50 percent. Billings can do as well, if we work together.

Statewide efforts to prevent dropouts received a boost last week when the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation announced $450,000 in grants to Montana public schools. The grants will be distributed through Graduation Matters Montana. The gift will allow grants of $10,000 to 15 school districts each year for three years.