I recently received an e-mail from a former student thanking me for believing in her while she was in high school and for giving her hope that she could do something successful in her life. Although she left school before graduating, she received her GED and joined the National Guard. She is now married, has two beautiful sons and is serving our country in Iraq. My response was that she was, and continues to be, worthy of high expectations. I believe that adults should hold high expectations of each student.
One of those expectations should be ensuring that young people graduate from high school. Graduation is a fundamental quality of life issue for individuals, their families and communities, and the State of Montana.
So how are we doing on that fundamental quality of life issue?
The short answer: not well enough. Last year, 2,010 students in grades 7-12 dropped out of school. This number is much too high. To confront this challenge, I have launched Graduation Matters Montana, an initiative aimed at increasing the graduation rate in our state. This statewide initiative is modeled after a successful program that started in Missoula.
Montana is one of a dwindling number of states that allows students to legally drop out of high school at age 16. My priority piece of legislation in 2011 is to raise the legal dropout age from "age 16" to "age 18 or upon graduation." I am pleased to be working with state Sen. Taylor Brown (R-Billings) on this critical piece of legislation, Senate Bill 44.
The law allowing students to drop out of high school at age 16 has not been changed in 90 years, but the world we live in has changed during that time. We now live in a time of social and economic circumstances that requires, at a very minimum, a high school diploma.
A high school graduate earns an average of more than $9,200 annually than a student who drops out. Individuals with a high school diploma have an employment rate twice as high as individuals who dropped out of high school. In addition, nearly 75 percent of the inmates in the Montana State Prison system are high school dropouts. About 35 percent of the population in the Montana State Prison system has achieved neither a diploma nor a GED.
Our changing world and the economic success of the next generation demand that we take action to increase the graduation rate in Montana.
I also understand that when we expect more from our schools and students, we need to create flexibility and alternatives for implementation. That is why Senate Bill 44 allows for different pathways to success for students. These pathways include adult basic education and the GED, Job Corps, Youth Challenge or apprenticeships. We will continue to work with schools to share successful models and support the good work currently being done in communities across Montana to address the dropout rate.
I recently convened the first-ever Student Advisory Board, which includes 40 students from 31 Montana schools, to get their advice on dropout prevention. They confirmed that students have a desire to do well in school and be successful adults, but they need options, flexibility, and career-relevant course work in their school setting. Raising the legal dropout age is a beginning, rather than an end to the work that lies ahead.
I firmly believe that children will rise to meet the expectations we set for them. As a state, we need to set the expectation for our young people that they will graduate from high school.
If you share my belief that graduation matters, join us as we engage students, parents, teachers, administrators and community leaders to make sure schools are meeting students' needs to prepare them to succeed in the 21st century and be productive members of our communities.
Denise Juneau is Montana's Superintendent of Public Instruction.