Missoula graduation

Hellgate’s class of 2016 throws their mortar boards in the air after graduating last spring.

TOMMY MARTINO, Missoulian

Missoula County Public Schools' graduation rate dipped by less than a percentage point last year, and while its dropout rate rose to the highest in years, school officials say it could be an anomaly or an error.

Statewide, high school graduation rates also fell last year after increasing each year since 2011, according to the Office of Public Instruction. The rate fell from 86.04 percent in 2015 to 85.6 percent last year – which is still the second highest since OPI began measuring the statistic in 2000.

MCPS' graduation rate dipped slightly from 89.22 percent in 2015 to 88.36 percent last year, though its three class AA schools – Big Sky, Hellgate and Sentinel – still held the highest of all AA school district graduation rates in the state.

  • Billings: 83.57 percent
  • Bozeman: 84.33 percent
  • Butte: 81.88 percent
  • Flathead: 86.7 percent
  • Great Falls: 83.42 percent
  • Helena: 85.71 percent
  • Missoula: 88.36 percent

Superintendent Mark Thane said that 0.86 percent decline measures out to about seven students.

MCPS high schools' 2016 graduation rates were:

  • Big Sky: 86.94 percent (from 86.06 percent in 2015)
  • Hellgate: 87.46 percent (from 88.5 percent in 2015)
  • Seeley-Swan: 90.63 percent (from 100 percent in 2015)
  • Sentinel: 90.73 percent (from 91.96 percent in 2015)

Sentinel had the highest graduation rate of all class AA schools in the state.

While Seeley-Swan's graduation rate dropped nearly 10 percent, smaller high schools' graduation rates fluctuate more than larger schools as a shift in one or two students can dramatically impact the outcome. Twenty-eight graduated from Seeley last year.

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Frenchtown is celebrating the highest graduation rate of all class A schools – not only that, but the highest of all AA schools – at 100 percent. It comes from, in essence, a "wraparound" feel at the high school, said superintendent Randy Cline.

"It's the whole idea of a school within a school," Cline said, particularly of the advisory periods that connect smaller groups of students with a teacher. "You have your high school, but then you create small communities, small pockets where students fit in to help them succeed."

Students meet with their assigned teacher during advisory periods to talk about concerns, their grades and anything going on in their lives. The idea is to build that relationship with an adult who wants to see them succeed, "to keep students from slipping through the cracks."

Frenchtown's dropout rate is also on the decline. It dropped from 4.09 percent in 2012 to 3.39 percent last year.

The school district is in the second year of its strategic plan implementation, one of the goals being student success. To that end, Frenchtown has several programs to guide students toward graduation and beyond. There's an alternative school; Jobs for Montana's Graduates, a state-funded program to develop students' life and job skills; credit recovery through the Montana Digital Academy; efforts to give eighth-graders a smooth transition to high school; and counselors working closely with students.

"Whenever you talk about the graduation rate, if you're going to point students toward graduation, that starts in kindergarten," Cline said. "It's not just something that the high school or junior high are doing. It's K-12. It's just a philosophy we have of every student is important, and we want every student to succeed."

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The state's dropout rate also dropped slightly, from 3.4 percent in 2015 to 3.39 percent last year.

But the rate rose in MCPS. After a low dropout rate in 2015 (1.89 percent), MCPS saw its highest dropout rate in years in 2016 (3.18 percent).

Thane wonders if it's due to a number that jumped out at him when they were counting kids in August 2015. That month, there were 26 kids who didn't return after the summer. That's compared to six in 2014 and eight in 2016.

Kids don't return to school for a variety of reasons. They could have moved, dropped out, or switched districts but haven't requested a records transfer yet. When they're not at school in August, though, they're counted as dropouts.

"Either it was an anomaly and we had a huge number of kids who dropped out or moved and we have no idea where they are, or some of those were likely dropouts in May or June in 14-15 who were not captured then and showed up in the August 2015 report," Thane said.

And while dropouts are important to MCPS, Thane said they focus more on the graduation rate "because a lot of kids that do drop out at one point or another, we continue to reach out to them and try to draw them back in to Willard or credit recovery."

So while a student may have counted as a dropout one year, if they returned for a fifth year and finished, for example, they would count as a "completer."

MCPS' high schools had an 88.36 percent graduation rate last year, compared to an 89.02 completion rate.

"Since they're not on-time graduates, they're not counted as graduates ... but they are counted in the completion rates," Thane said. "This year we have a couple of kids for whom we extended their enrollment this first semester of the year. We don't get funding from the state for 19-year-olds, unfortunately, but we felt it was important to extend that opportunity for those students to complete the requirements."

Billings Gazette reporter Matt Hoffman contributed to this report.

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