The state schools superintendent has rolled out a new initiative to get Montana's schools to adopt an anti-dropout effort that started in Missoula - Graduation Matters.

So far, said Denise Juneau in an interview with the Missoulian editorial board, seven AA districts - Kalispell and Bozeman, for instance - have signed on, representing about half of all Montana public school children. Juneau and her office staff have been traveling the state over the summer to get districts to sign on to the program.

The focus, said Juneau, is not getting children to graduate in four years, but to graduate in any time frame.

"We really need to be focused on something that students can have in their hands as adults, and count them no matter how long it takes," said Juneau, who two years ago adopted Graduation Matters Missoula as a statewide initiative.

Montana yearly ranks near the middle of states in its graduation rate. In the past four years, the state rate has been around 81 percent.

The new statewide initiative includes slick publications and a website (graduationmatters.mt.gov) for districts to begin implementing the program, which is a community-driven effort to target children at risk of dropping out, or finding and then encouraging students who have already left to return.

The Missoula County Public Schools district credits a steep three-year decline in its dropout rate to the program, which first surfaced more than three years ago under MCPS Superintendent Alex Apostle.

Under the Missoula program, said Apostle, dropouts or those at risk of dropping out are identified by name every week at each of Missoula's high schools.

Counselors and principals, along with peer groups, call and visit the dropouts to encourage them to stay in school. Each school also has an advisory committee of parents, students and teachers to help identify such students.

Students have also been recovering credits through the new Aventa Learning online program and the online-only Montana Digital Academy, said Apostle.

"We're keeping it on the front burner and that's what you have to do to get the results we're talking about," said Apostle. "It's not just putting up a banner that says ‘Graduation Matters.' "

In 2010, 88 students in MCPS dropped out of Missoula's three AA high schools. In 2008, that number was 190.

The 2011 number won't be known until next month, when MCPS is required by state law to report initial dropout and attendance figures to the state Office of Public Instruction.

State OPI policy adviser Deb Halliday said the state's adoption of Graduation Matters represents an important change in philosophy when it comes to keeping Montana children in school.

"There are districts where a kid doesn't come to school for 15 days and nobody called them to ask where they are," she said. "This is a fairly radical cultural shift. Some of the communities we're working with are needing to take the leap from banner-ism to a programmatic cultural shift."

Reach reporter Jamie Kelly at 523-5254 or at jkelly@missoulian.com.

 

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