Juneau visits Columbia Falls High School

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Montana State Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau takes a selfie with a group of Columbia Falls students after a visit to a high school on Thursday. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)

Columbia Falls High School students had a surprise visit Thursday from Montana Office of Public Instruction Superintendent Denise Juneau to talk about graduation.

Juneau, a Democrat challenging Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke for Montana’s lone U.S. House seat, wanted to find out more about the high school’s participation in Graduation Matters Montana, a statewide initiative to increase the number of college- and career-ready graduates. The statewide graduation rate for the 2014-15 school year was 86 percent.

“You are so engaged in empowering students I wanted to hear a little more about how this year is going,” Juneau told the crowd of students.

In the four years Columbia Falls has participated in Graduation Matters there has been an increase in participation from one to 85 students, said Betsy Funk, a health enhancement teacher who oversees the program in Columbia Falls.

“All the work going on in communities like yours have helped increase graduation rate to historic highs two years in a row and actually cut the dropout rate by a third,” Juneau said. “And a big part of that is around empowering students in their own education.”

ONE OF the signature programs in Columbia Falls is the annual Speak Out event, which earned an Engaging Student Voices Award from the Office Of Public Instruction in June.

At Speak Out, juniors and seniors read essays anonymously to an audience of freshman and sophomores encouraging them to graduate.

Senior Hannah Gustin elaborated, “It gets to show our school community if you’re having problems you’re not the only one. It gives you a reason to graduate and we have a ton of people involved.”

Other student efforts have included outreach to freshmen, serving as peer advocates and tutors, and reading to and mentoring elementary students.

“Every time I meet with young people I am inspired about the future. I think your generation is more interested in making a difference than any generation previous,” Juneau said.

Funk said the students also do random celebrations such as handing out Popsicles or playing “zombie tag” in the hallways.

“Anything to keep kids engaged and looking forward to school,” Funk said.

Senior Joey Chester added, “We want everyone to find a place to fit in.”

Chester also announced a new project in the works to install wayfinding signs around town directing traffic to places such as the high school. Chester said the idea came after attending Youth Days in Kalispell.

“One thing that we’re lacking is our connection as a school to the community and our students to the community,” Chester said.

Funk added that the students thought signs would be a great way to direct traffic to the schools and downtown.

“The problem is 2 million people drive through town here and never turn left,” Funk said.

AFTER A few selfies with Juneau, students dispersed and she talked more about issues that will affect education in the next legislative session.

Students aren’t the only stakeholders in Graduation Matters. Local businesses and nonprofits are invited to the table as well.

“We have 450 small businesses across the state at those tables locally because that’s their future workforce,” Juneau said. “It’s sort of a grassroots effort and it’s community based.”

Juneau said she is confident the graduation initiative will continue after her term expires in January.

“I think Graduation Matters will continue on it’s own just because it’s so community based,” Juneau said.

In reflecting on her legacy, Juneau said her office has pushed back on federal policies that “don’t fit our state,” making note of the federal Race to the Top competitive grant meant to spur reform by changing educational policies.

“It would have fundamentally changed the way we do education in our state, and we have a quality education system,” Juneau said. “Not only are we graduating more students than ever before — that diploma means something more because we’ve also increased academic standards at the same time.”

Issues that Juneau believes will come up in the next session include recruitment and retention of teachers, facilities and the use of tax dollars to fund private schools.

“I’m not opposed to private schools, I just don’t think public money should go to that effort. I think that’s an issue that comes up every Legislative session and I think you’ll see it again. I think there are enough innovative efforts going on in public schools,” Juneau said. “There’s enough flexibility in our rules and laws right now to let schools do innovative programs to meet their student’s needs.”

Juneau said the topic of providing publicly-funded preschool will come up again as well. In the meantime, a federal grant has allowed expansion of preschool programs in 34 communities this year Juneau said.

“Those programs will become advocates for what public preschool can do,” Juneau said.

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

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