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Lily Johnson makes her fellow Sentinel High School graduates laugh by pulling her robe over her head and dancing as they wait for their commencement to begin.

TOM BAUER/Missoulian

Western Montana's high school graduation rates beat the state average of 85.8 percent in 2017, new figures from the Office of Public Instruction show.

State graduation rates have generally trended up this decade, rising from 82.2 percent to a peak of 86 percent in 2015. Rates dipped to 85.6 percent in 2016 before inching up to 85.8 percent in 2017. 

Ravalli County sits at almost a 92 percent four-year graduation rate, well above Flathead County’s 87 percent and Missoula County’s 86 percent.

All three counties’ numbers have varied over the last four years. This year marks Ravalli County’s highest rate, while Missoula and Flathead counties peaked in 2015 at 90 percent and 87 percent, respectively.

Graduation rates have gained increasing prominence in education debates; the national graduation rate hit a record high of about 84 percent in 2016. 

Montana focused on the topic through Graduation Matters, a grant program that funded local-level efforts to get students through school, under previous Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau. 

Current Superintendent Elsie Arntzen has rolled out a similar initiative in conjunction with several other education groups. It's called iGraduate, which will "build on the work of Graduation Matters," according to a release from Arntzen's office. 

Montana's completion rate, which includes students outside the usual four-year high school track, increased to a five-year high of 86.6 percent. The completion rate has gone up each of the past five years. 

The state's dropout rate, measuring students who leave high school regardless of grade level, dropped .06 percent to 3.33 percent. The lower the rate, the fewer students drop out. 

Western Montana's average is also better than the state average in dropout rate, though not by much. Flathead and Missoula counties are at 3.22 and 3.28 percent respectively. Ravalli County is just over 1 percent, the lowest in the state.

In an emailed news release, Arntzen focused on funneling students to job opportunities. 

“It is crucial that Montana students have pathways to future success after they receive that high school diploma,” Arntzen said. “I am working with our partners in higher education and private sector industries to expand career pathways so that all Montana students can succeed after high school.”

Achievement Gaps

Native American students saw a significant increase in 2017, improving more than 3 percent to a five-year-high graduation rate of 69.4 percent. 

Montana has long-held achievement gaps between the overall student body and Native American students, which often reflects economic status. The 18.9 percent achievement gap in 2017 is the smallest it's been in five years. 

"While looking at the achievement gaps, it is important to consider factors of opportunity gaps, causes for students failing to thrive, and the supports that schools, communities, and partners can provide to remove barriers," a 2017 report on Montana American Indian student achievement notes.

The 2017 graduation rate for African-American students was 80.1 percent. The rate for Hispanic students was 79.8 percent. 

Students who qualify for free and reduced lunches — long used as a proxy for economic status — also typically have lower graduation rates and test scores than their wealthier peers. 

In 2017, the graduation rate for students qualifying for free lunch was 76.6 percent, up about .2 percent from 2016. The rate for students not in the free lunch program was 94 percent, up about .4 percent. 

The rate for special education students was 76.7 percent, compared to 87.1 percent for students not in special education programs. 

The rate for homeless students dipped to 61.9 percent, down from about 66.3 percent and a five-year low. 

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