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Melanie Blodgett, 16, right, has her picture taken with friend Jordan Clump, 17, who graduated from Willard on Thursday. Clump's guardian takes the photo.

LOUISE JOHNS, Missoulian

Before Matthew Sheka Jr. began attending Sentinel High School, he missed a lot of school and had a low GPA.

“But this year I turned things around,” Sheka said during a celebration of Graduation Matters Missoula on Wednesday morning at Sentinel.

Now Sheka is considering being a teacher himself after feeling engaged and interested in his classes and because teachers pushed him to take on leadership roles.

“I have really good teachers that help me really understand lessons,” said the junior who enrolled in Sentinel last March.

His efforts are paying off and Sheka has raised his GPA.

“He really worked hard for that,” his mom, Crystal White Shield, said.

The community-school partnership that began in 2010 has been successful enough to spur its implementation at the state level. 

The event was held at the school because of its four-year cohort graduation rate of 91.5 percent, which is well above the state average of 85.4 percent.

Wednesday's celebration was just one of multiple events across the district that will take place this month, which Missoula Mayor John Engen declared as Graduation Matters month.

Graduation Matters Missoula is focused on fostering a nurturing school environment and the belief that all students, regardless of their circumstances, can succeed, said Susan Hay Patrick, CEO of United Way of Missoula.

Education is a community issue and the quality of education in a community can impact businesses deciding to locate here, Hay Patrick said.

Graduation Matters Missoula as a slogan can build awareness and inspire curiosity, but it goes further than a catch phrase, she said. “It’s far more than that. It’s a movement."

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The program seeks to tackle two of the main reasons students drop out of school: that they feel no one cares and that they feel programs are not relevant, MCPS Superintendent Alex Apostle said.

Graduation Matters, coupled with the 21st century model of learning, have been improving student success, Apostle said.

Overall, MCPS graduation rates are higher than the state average, at an 87.8 four-year cohort graduation rate, an 89.5 percent five-year cohort graduation rate and a 2.6 percent dropout rate.

But the district still has a way to go before reaching its goal of a 96 percent graduation rate by 2019.

“But at least we’ve launched those efforts and we’re moving forward and we’re making progress,” Apostle said.

At the state level, the graduation rate has increased to its highest level since the state began measuring it in 2000.

In 2014, 85.4 percent of high school students graduated, with 3.6 percent dropping out of school, according to Office of Public Instruction data.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau on Wednesday announced the most recent round of Graduation Matters Montana grants, awarded to 39 schools and United Ways and totaling more than $203,000.

Nearly 80 percent of Montana students attend a school with a Graduation Matters initiative and 53 communities participate, according to a news release from the Office of Public Instruction.

Students who are not in danger of dropping out also benefit from Graduation Matters because of its push for relevant education.

Dylan Haggart, a sophomore, said he didn’t struggle with school, but was not fully engaged until he became involved in DECA, in which about 10 percent of Sentinel’s students participate.

Now, he has a two-page resume of activities and leadership roles.

“I never would have guessed that I was capable of that,” he said, adding that DECA adviser Mark Hartman pushed him to participate in different opportunities.

“It isn’t so much about graduation matters as it is about graduation mattering,” Hartman said, adding that DECA is just one of many ways across the district for students to be engaged in learning that is relevant.

Sometimes kids need something not found in a textbook or lesson.

“Some of the students just need a caring adult,” said Cecil B. Crawford, a Native American specialist with the district.

Over the past seven years, MCPS has seen a 32 percent increase in the Native American student graduation rate and 88 percent of Native American students graduated in 2014.

Crawford said he shakes hands with Willard Alternative High School students every school morning, regardless of the weather, just to let them know he believes in them.

“It’s almost selfish because of what I get back from them. It makes me feel really good,” he said.

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