Montana’s superintendent of public instruction motored to Missoula on Wednesday to trumpet another record graduation rate last school year.

Denise Juneau said the number hit 86 percent for the first time since the state began gathering and compiling such information in 2000. Dropout rates continued a downward trend to 3.4 percent. That’s a reduction of more than a third since 2009, when the statewide graduation rate was under 81 percent.

“We have a lot to be proud of,” Juneau told a morning gathering in the front lobby of Sentinel High School.

Her stage was well-chosen.

Missoula County Public Schools led all Class AA school districts in both graduation and dropout rates, and Sentinel topped both categories for Montana’s largest schools with a 92 percent graduation rate and just 14 dropouts from a four-year cohort of 277 students.

The Missoula community implemented Montana's inaugural Graduation Matters initiative in January 2010.

“This is where it all started, Graduation Matters Missoula, learning what was going on on the ground here and scaling that up statewide,” Juneau said. “We talked to a lot of other communities across the state where it made sense to bring people to the table, have conversations about public education, look at the data, be truthful about it, and then figure out what everybody in the community – from small businesses to nonprofit organizations, parents and students – can bring to the table to help make sure every kid stays in school.”

Today, 53 communities across the state have followed Missoula’s lead in Graduation Matters.

“But the reality is we continue to lose far too many students,” MCPS Superintendent Mark Thane said.

Fifty-seven students dropped out of Missoula’s three AA schools in the 2014-15 school year.

“That is unacceptable,” stressed Ted Fuller, principal of Sentinel. “We have to continue to focus on ending high school dropouts much like we focus on ending homelessness and hunger.

“If there’s something that we should collectively as a community and as a state work to end, it’s students leaving high school, because we know the disadvantage that puts them at.”

***

Studies show graduating from high school means higher-paying jobs and more opportunities.

"According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, Montana will see a $6 million annual boost to the state's economy from the graduates we've had since 2009," said Juneau, who assumed office that year and is challenging Ryan Zinke for his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

"You're welcome," she added with a grin.

All four MCPS high schools topped the state graduation rate of 86 percent, led by Seeley-Swan, a Class C school, with the only 100 percent mark in western Montana. Hellgate ranked fourth among the 14 AA schools with an 88.5 percent rate. Big Sky was eighth at 86.1 percent.

Sentinel was the only AA school in Montana with a graduation rate above 90 percent. Helena Capital was second at 89.7 percent, followed by Glacier High of Kalispell at 88.9. Hellgate and Flathead High of Kalispell (87.9) rounded out the top five. Billings Senior brought up the rear in Class AA at 80.1 percent.

Class AA district graduation rates ranged from Missoula County Public Schools’ 89.2 percent to Billings schools’ 82.1 percent. Bozeman, which led the state last year, fell to third behind the Missoula and Kalispell districts.

Five Class A schools in western Montana graduated their core four-year cohort classes at a clip of 90 percent or better. Frenchtown led the group at 97.75 percent, followed by Corvallis (95.73), Hamilton (94.73), Polson (90.83) and Stevensville (90.24).

Deer Lodge’s 97.73 percent graduation rate led area Class B schools. Eureka (95.38) and Troy (94.12) in Lincoln County and Bigfork (93.06) in Flathead County also topped 90 percent.

Granite County schools in Philipsburg and Drummond paced Class C schools in the region with graduation rates of 94.74 and 94.12, respectively. Also receiving high marks were Victor (93.94), Charlo (93.75), and St. Regis (93.33).

The worst graduation marks in western Montana were posted by a pair of Ravalli County high schools – Darby (72 percent) and Florence (78.95 percent).

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Juneau said her office is placing emphasis this year on Graduation Matters in Indian country, hiring a temporary coordinator for the project.

Roughly a third of the 53 communities that have embraced Graduation Matters have significant American Indian populations.

“We know that gap still exists,” Juneau said. “It’s going in the right direction, but it’s still too large and we really need to dig in and focus on how those Graduation Matters communities might look, because the context is different from, for instance, Missoula.”

Fuller said while Missoula administrators recognize the importance of graduation and dropout rates, “we focus relentlessly on making graduation matter.”

He added he deserves no credit for the state-leading numbers at MCPS and at Sentinel.

“The credit goes to people like our custodians who have extra food in their break room for students who don’t have enough,” Fuller said. “It goes to the teacher whose students, along with chemistry, learn to serve the greater good by collecting 40,000 pounds of food for the local food bank. And it goes to things like Sentinel offering the first dual-credit class for students with disabilities.”

That pilot class is believed to be the first of its kind in the state. It begins Jan. 25 in partnership with Missoula College, which made 10 scholarships available for Sentinel students. It’s called Workplace Communication, and each student will receive a college credit for completing it.

The Sentinel principal said the class is important in both a pragmatic and symbolic sense.

“It makes the statement to these students that you are capable of continuing your education,” said Fuller. “We expect you to, and we’re going to give you a head start.”

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