Smallest schools have best graduation rates

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Eighth-graders in the Flathead Valley recently signed pledges to graduate from high school as part of Graduation Matters Kalispell. The question is, will schools be able to retain these young students four years from now?

The state Office of Public Instruction recently released its graduation and dropout report that shows how local schools fared in 2013.

This school year marks the beginning of the fourth year of the state’s Graduation Matters Montana initiative to increase the number of high school graduates. From 2009 to 2013, Montana’s graduation rate has increased from 80.7 percent to 84.4 percent, and the dropout rate has decreased from 5 percent to 3.6 percent. This means that 772 fewer students dropped out in 2013 than in 2009.

Graduation numbers are representative of an adjusted cohort rate. The cohort rate counts ninth-graders through graduation over a four-year period.

The number is adjusted to account for students transferring in and out of a school. Students who take more than four years to graduate are not counted; neither are students who turn 19 prior to achieving their diploma.

Dropout rates are assessed each year. Since each year brings in a different mix of students, this number tends to fluctuate in comparison to the graduation cohort rate, which follows a group over four years.

The report also pulled out groups with 10 or more students, such as special education and economically disadvantaged (students qualifying for free or reduced lunch), to show how their graduation rate compared to all students.

The Flathead Valley’s two smallest high schools — Bigfork and Whitefish — were the only ones to surpass the state in graduation gains and dropout rate reductions, with Bigfork leading the ranks for the second year.

Columbia Falls, Flathead and Glacier high schools’ graduation rates however, dipped below 2012 numbers.

In dropout rates, Columbia Falls, Flathead and Glacier have improved since 2008-09.

In 2013, Bigfork graduated about 93.7 percent, 59 students — an improvement over last year’s 90.8 percent. Of the students who were classified as economically disadvantaged, 90 percent, or 27 students, graduated.

Bigfork has nearly eradicated dropouts, with 1.1 percent, down from 3.5 percent in 2008-09.

Bigfork High School Principal Matt Porrovecchio said the numbers are a testament to staff and students. He said a small part has to do with the size of the school.

“A little bit had to do with size, but not entirely. Yes, there are connections you can make with kids that you can’t make at a large school, but we have great teachers that go above and beyond,” he said.

Porrovecchio said the staff takes opportunities to intervene with students who struggle in or outside of school and are at risk of dropping out.

“When kids know they are cared about and they matter [they are] less likely to drop out,” Porrovecchio said.

Whitefish awarded diplomas to 90.7 percent or 98 students last year. The percentage of Whitefish’s special education population who graduated was 80.8 percent or 21 students. The high school did improve its dropout rate from 4 percent in 2008-09 to 2.5 percent in 2013.

Columbia Falls graduated 80.35 percent, 139 students — down from 2012’s graduation rate of 86.3 percent.

A considerably smaller number of Columbia Falls students who were economically disadvantaged or in special education received diplomas. In special education, 58.8 percent, 10 students, and 71.8 percent, 74 students, who were economically disadvantaged, graduated.

Columbia Falls High School Principal Scott Gaiser said there are a number of programs and strategies being used to tackle graduation numbers, including peer tutoring, academic coaching and advisement periods.

“Efforts by the Graduation Matters initiative have prompted more community awareness and support in the form of guest speakers, job shadow opportunities and mentors,” Gaiser said.

Columbia Falls has gained ground in reducing the number of dropouts from 5.8 percent in 2008-09 to 3.9 percent in 2013.

This is a positive direction for the school, Gaiser said. The most important element in improving graduation rates and student retention is a school climate in which students and staff feel safe, respected and cared about.

“We continue to strive to do just that to the best of our ability,” Gaiser said.

Glacier High School edged out Flathead in the percentage of graduates while Flathead made gains in decreasing the number of students who dropped out.

Glacier had 83.1 percent, 305 students, who graduated in 2013. Among Glacier’s economically disadvantaged graduates, 71.4 percent, or 110 students, graduated, while and 80.6 percent of the special education students, 25 students, graduated.

Glacier’s dropout rate has decreased from 4.5 percent in 2008-09 to 3.8 in 2013.

Eighty-one percent, 328 students, graduated from Flathead High School. Of those classified as economically disadvantaged, 72.8 percent, 142 students, graduated, along with 80.6 percent, or 25 students in special education.

Flathead improved its dropout rate from 5.3 percent in 2008-09 to 4.1 percent in 2013.

Kalispell Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Dan Zorn said the district is doing a variety of programs for all students to achieve their high school diploma. Some of the strategies include various credit retrieval programs and pairing at-risk sophomores with adult mentors.

“These strategies are applied to all students who are at-risk, regardless of their economic status or learning disability,” Zorn said. “We determine this risk by looking at failure rates and credit deficiency rates. We know that students often drop when they discover that their credit deficiencies have become so great that they will have difficulty graduating on time.”

While bigger school districts have student populations from a larger sampling of socioeconomic backgrounds, Zorn said Kalispell Public Schools are creating “small learning communities” such as freshman academies and an Academic Transition Center to keep them connected.

“By creating small learning communities, the chances of our students getting connected with a meaningful adult are increased,” Zorn said.

Office of Public Instruction Superintendent Denise Juneau pointed to data that demonstrates dropout rates are highest in grades 11 and 12, accounting for 999 of the students in Montana who dropped out in 2013 or 65 percent of all dropouts.

Juneau also noted that 122 students who were 19 years or older were enrolled in the fall semester and 93 in the spring semester during the 2012-2013 school year. She reinforced her commitment to introducing legislation to raise the legal dropout age to “age 18 or upon graduation” and providing state funding for students who are older than 18 years old.

According to calculations made by the Alliance for Excellent Education, Montana is likely to see significant economic gains as a result of the increase in its high school graduation rate from 2009 to 2013, estimating a $4.3 million annual boost to the state’s economy.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or by email at

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