Nearly 1,000 high school freshmen took a seat in an uncommon venue Tuesday morning to hear what will become a common message for their next four years: Graduation matters.

Sometimes excited, sometimes fidgety and sometimes bored on the turf of Washington-Grizzly Stadium, every Missoula County Public Schools freshman from Sentinel to Seeley Lake high schools was bombarded with the message that Missoula cares that they not only earn their diploma, but that they do so with college in mind.

Even Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer was present at the gathering, sponsored by MCPS and its Graduation Matters Missoula program.

Addressing students in a sun-drenched stadium, Schweitzer - one of numerous speakers - told them that high-school life seems like a long road ahead, but that it will go quickly, so savor every moment.

"It's a new start and a new beginning," the governor said. "To this point you have just been getting ready for high school. (The year) 2015 sounds like a long ways away. ... But enjoy the journey. It's not about the destination, but the journey."

Tuesday's event was the latest and largest in MCPS' campaign to see every student graduate from high school. Graduation Matters Missoula, now in its third year, has also been adopted by the state Office of Public Instruction as Graduation Matters Montana.

The state has a relatively high dropout rate, with around 2,000 students leaving high school every year.

The event was held on the football field of Washington-Grizzly Stadium on purpose - students were shown public-relations films advertising the University of Montana and Grizzly athletics, and were visited by UM mascot Monte after the morning's speakers.

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Another speaker was Missoula Mayor John Engen, himself a graduate of Hellgate High School.

Engen told the freshmen that the entire community is behind them.

"The irony that we took you out of school to tell you to stay in school is not lost on us," said the mayor. "But it was important enough for us to drag you out into the sunshine to show you the light."

Students also heard from other former and current students within MCPS.

Tyler Monson, a Sentinel High School junior, told students that he was terrified his freshman year and therefore didn't give it his best effort - despite everyone telling him that his effort mattered.

Don't make that mistake, he said.

"Right now is where it counts," said Monson. "High school is four of the most important years of your life. You don't want to be like me and be wishing you'd done more and joined more organizations."

MCPS Superintendent Alex Apostle said there may have been a time for inconsequential choices in their lives, but that when it comes to their education, those choices are now critical.

"Going to high school is not a dress rehearsal," he said. "It's the real deal. Whatever you do or don't do in the next four years will follow you for the rest of your life."

The words they need to avoid in life from now on are simple, he said.

"No more ‘I should have, I could have, I would have.' "

Reach reporter Jamie Kelly at 523-5254 or at jkelly@missoulian.com.

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