The official numbers for the Missoula County Public Schools district's dropouts are in, and they're better than initial reports last spring.
Even so, because of the way a dropout is defined by the federal government, local school officials aren't entirely certain what the numbers mean.
Still, in the 2009-10 school year, 89 students were counted as dropouts, a steep decline from the previous year in which 168 students left school.
That essentially cut the number of dropouts in half, and so far this year, the dropout rate in MCPS is slightly lower than the 2009-10 rate.
"We'll know more at the end of November," said Mark Thane, one of the district's three regional managers.
The Montana Office of Public Instruction in Helena gathers all school districts' data on dropouts, and the number becomes official at the end of October - when the districts also report their official enrollment.
Late last spring, the district counted an unofficial 102 high-school dropouts, so the official tally of 89 is an improvement of 13 - meaning that over the summer and this autumn, 13 students who had left MCPS have returned or were found enrolled elsewhere.
MCPS Superintendent Alex Apostle's "Graduation Matters Missoula" initiative aims at taking that number down to zero - admittedly a near-impossible task, but one the district is aiming for anyway.
The initiative, which has been co-opted by OPI as "Graduation Matters Montana," is a community effort to target dropouts and would-be dropouts, and also to better track the students who have left school.
As it is now, the "dropout rate" is a simple calculation.
Divide the number of students who were in school last October, but are no longer in school this year, by the official enrollment of the current year.
That's it - that's the dropout rate.
But here's the problem.
Students who leave school for nearly any reason - moving to another district, going to work, attending home school, for instance - are counted as "dropouts" (unless they are found enrolled elsewhere, sometimes in another state).
Even home-schooled students who enter the public schools for a year for "socialization" or athletic reasons and later go back to being home-schooled are counted as dropouts. So are students who drop out to work for the family and later get their GED.
So even 89 official dropouts in MCPS is a number that likely looks worse than it actually is, but there is nothing that MCPS can do about how the state and federal government, under the federal No Child Left Behind law, define a dropout.
"Part of the problem," said Thane, "is it's federal because the government wants the states to report it in the same way."
Until the definitions are changed, the state and its nearly 500 school districts are hamstrung in how they report the number, said Thane.
And that also complicates another figure: the "graduation rate."
The graduation rate is a complicated, four-year statistical picture, as opposed to the snapshot of the dropout rate. For starters, it is not 100 percent minus the dropout percentage.
Under No Child Left Behind, a "graduate" is a student who has received a high school diploma in four years or less.
Getting a GED doesn't count. Getting a diploma in five years doesn't count. Taking a year off and then returning to get your diploma doesn't count.
To take it to the extreme, the entire freshman Class of 2014 could end up with diplomas after five years and the school would have a graduation rate of zero percent that year.
As it stands currently, Montana is in the bottom fifth of all states, with an 82 percent graduation rate.
Thane said there is no statistical incentive to convince a dropout to return to school or get his or her GED, because it won't improve that rate.
"And I think there ought to be incentives for districts to reach out to those students," he said.
Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau said that Montana's dropout numbers are higher because the state now has a more thorough way to track students, who may transfer to other schools, through a student identification number.
Despite that, she said, "Our dropout rate is high, and we need to do something about it."
The OPI has put together some initiatives to take to the 2011 Legislature, including a proposal to require students to stay in school until they are 18 or until they graduate. Students now can drop out when they turn 16.
In addition, Juneau is proposing a state plan based on the Graduation Matters initiative first started by Apostle. It is a partnership among the Missoula mayor, local businesses, community leaders and schools to emphasize the importance of high school graduation.
"We want to scale it up for Montana, and hopefully down the line, once it gets going, every school could decide to pick up the idea and best use the resources," she said.
Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.