Columbia Falls leads way in graduation rate

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Qyn Ingraham, center, is all smiles as he heads into the gym for Columbia Falls’ graduation in this file photo. (Hungry Horse News)

Four of five high schools in the Flathead edged out the state average in graduate rates for 2017.

Columbia Falls, Flathead, Glacier and Whitefish high schools surpassed the statewide graduation rate of 85.8 percent, according to graduation and dropout data released earlier this month by The Office of Public Instruction. This means 9,158 Montana students received diplomas in 2017, a negligible improvement over 2016’s 85.6 percent.

Graduation numbers are representative of an adjusted cohort rate, which counts ninth-graders through graduation over a four-year period. The number is adjusted as students transfer in and out.

Students who take five years to graduate, or turn 19 before receiving high school diplomas are not counted in the cohort. Students who earn high school equivalency diplomas also are not counted.

Columbia Falls High School led the ranks among the valley’s high schools — a spot typically held by smaller schools.

The Class A school had 87.9 percent of students earning diplomas in 2017 (160 students). This is a slight improvement from the class of 2016 when 87.1 graduated — a jump from the 2015 and 2014 cohorts where 80.6 percent of students earned diplomas.

In 2016, Columbia Falls High School was among six school communities or foundations honored by the Office of Public Instruction’s now phased out Graduation Matters initiative for its work to increase graduation rates and prepare students for college and career with support of community partnerships.

“This is a good place to be,” said Columbia Falls High School Principal Scott Gaiser. “There’s still much room for improvement, but folks have worked hard and it’s nice to see some of that reflected here.”

Ensuring students reach graduation is a combination of school climate, providing academic and behavior support systems and keeping students engaged, whether they are college bound or entering the workforce after completing high school, according to Gaiser.

Within the last several years the school created a graduation coach position with a focus on helping struggling students. A student family advocate also came on board last year.

When it comes to academics, diversity is important.

Gaiser said the school continues to work on offering more college-level Advanced Placement courses, dual-credit classes through Flathead Valley Community College in addition to vocational certification programs in areas such as welding and health occupations.

Gaiser also noted it’s a community effort to keep kids in school.

Kalispell’s two Class AA schools were not far behind Columbia Falls.

Glacier graduated 87.4 percent (283 students) in 2017. The graduation cohort rate remained flat from 2016 where 87.5 percent received diplomas.

Flathead had 86.5 percent (326 students) graduating, a slight improvement from 2016 at 86.1 percent.

Whitefish High School achieved an 86.8 percent (112 students) graduation rate. However, this is a step back for the Class A school’s 2016 rate of 88.6 percent.

Bigfork High School was the only one to fall below the state in graduation rates, which isn’t typical. The Class B school graduated 82.4 percent (56 students) in 2017 compared to the 2016 cohort of 87.2 percent. It’s graduation cohort rates have been on the decline since it’s most recent peak in 2014 when 95.2 percent graduated.

Bigfork School District Superintendent Matt Jensen said when looking at the numbers it is important to remember that graduation and dropout rates do not account for students taking alternative paths outside the traditional high school setting, such as earning a high school equivalency diploma or joining the Job Corps, which several students at Bigfork opted to accomplish in 2017.

“There is not one answer to the diversity of challenges facing our youth. We still work through each individual challenge promoting a traditional graduation path as the best option. I am proud of the problem solving, creativity and flexibility I see on a daily basis from our staff, as they work to keep high standards and all students engaged,” Jensen said.

Additional graduation data is available at https://gems.opi.mt.gov/.

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

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