Gathering aims to improve graduation rates

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State Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau met with local leaders Tuesday at Glacier High School to brainstorm ideas on improving high-school graduation rates in the Flathead Valley.

Businesses, nonprofits, school board trustees and school staff from Kalispell, Columbia Falls, Whitefish and Kila schools participated in a guided discussion on creating a relevant school experience to keep students on the path to graduation, college and a career. The session was part of Graduation Matters Montana, an Office of Public Instruction initiative to raise the state’s graduation rate.

The initiative challenges school districts to graduate college- and career-ready students and establish support networks for students with the community.

“Everyone has a role to play to make sure kids have a good start. Our role at the state level is to share what works,” Juneau said.

She added that her goal is for school districts to create their own plans and use Graduation Matters as a springboard for ideas.

“Around 2,000 Montana students every year are dropping out,” she said.

Juneau remarked that Flathead High School was doing a good job of improving its graduation rate, but there was still work to do. She cited data from 2008, when there were 141 dropouts with fall enrollment at 1,648. In 2010, there were 71 dropouts with fall enrollment at 1,407.

Kalispell School District 5 Superintendent Darlene Schottle said that while the district has worked hard to decrease the number of dropouts, there is still work to do.

“We’re absolutely paying attention to it. Principals start to see a pattern of students that are not attending school, their grades are dropping, they’re not completing homework — maybe showing signs of beginning to withdraw — usually it doesn’t happen that a good student suddenly becomes a dropout,” she said.

Schottle posed several questions to the group. Participants then split up in small groups for 15-minute discussions on each question.

Topics ranged from parental involvement to changing school policy to how businesses and community leaders could become involved in the school. Juneau and Schottle listened in on the conversations. Schottle said she was interested in the different perspectives from people outside the education world.

Some ideas resulting from the open dialogue included hosting a soft-skills institute, having students job shadow at local businesses, enlisting retirees as mentors and inviting employers into the classrooms.

Sherry Stevens, executive director  of United Way, said she plans to hold a similar discussion between nonprofit agencies about Graduation Matters.

“We see the families when they’re struggling. We see kids that are forced to go out and work. We see and talk to kids who are trying to hold down two jobs and also going to school,” she said.

“From the standpoint of the agencies across the valley, we can have a huge impact in trying to work with this initiative.”

Participant Corey Johnson of CTA Architects Engineers said businesses have a vested interest in dropout rates.

“The school district is training our future employees,” he said. “We’re here to make sure schools are understanding how business has changed and where we need specific job skills. Good education means a good community.”

Whitefish Superintendent Kate Orozco had to leave the meeting early to attend her district board meeting but wanted to take back a list of ideas to share with board members.

In her district, she said, it is not just about preparing students for graduation, college and career, but also training them to be good citizens in their community.

“Like State Superintendent Denise Juneau said, ‘Whether they graduate or not, they’re going to be in your community.’ We want to give kids a good, strong, fighting chance to make it to college and a good career,” Orozco said.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or at hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

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