HELENA – Montana ranks among the bottom 10 states with teens ages 16 to 19 who have dropped out of high school before graduating, the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count reported Monday.

Nine percent of Montana teenagers fell into this category in 2008 to rank 44th worst among the states, the Kids Count Data Book said. That compares with 7 percent in 2000 – or a 29 percent increase.

(Kids Count uses both 2008 and 2007 statistics in the 2010 Data Book.)

In contrast, the national trend in this category is down 45 percent. The number of teens ages 16 to 19 not in school and who haven’t graduated has fallen from 11 percent in 2000 to 6 percent in 2008, for a decrease of 45 percent, the report said.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau said that Montana’s dropout numbers are higher because the state now has a more thorough way to track students, who may transfer to other schools, through a student identification number.

Despite that, Juneau said, “Our dropout rate is high, and we need to do something about it.”

Her office has put together some initiatives to take to the 2011 Legislature, including a proposal to require students to stay in school until they are 18 or until they graduate. Students now can drop out when they turn 16.

“It’s important to set a policy at the state level that we expect everyone to graduate from high school at a minimum,” she said.

In addition, Juneau is proposing a state plan based on the Graduation Matters initiative, which Missoula County Public Schools Superintendent Alex Apostle started. It is a partnership among the Missoula mayor, local businesses and schools to emphasize the importance of high school graduation.

“We want to scale it up Montana, and hopefully down the line, once it gets going, every school could decide to pick up the idea and best use the resources,” she said.

Ten percent of Montana teens from ages 16 to 19 who have dropped out of school are not working, and the state ranked 39th nationally, according to the Kids Count Data Book. For the entire, the rate was 8 percent nationally. Similar statistics were not collected for 2000.

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More than one out of five Montana children, or 21 percent, lived in poverty in 2008, for the state to rank 38th best nationally, the Kids Count report said. This is defined as the percentage of incomes below $21,834 for a family of two adults and two children in 2008. That’s a 24 percent increase from 2000 when 17 percent of Montana children lived in poverty.

Nationally, the percentage of children living in poverty has increased from 17 percent in 2000 to 18 percent in 2008, for a 6 percent increase, Kids Count said.

Rep. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, who heads the anti-poverty group called Working for Equality and Economic Liberation, said she’s not surprised by the figures.

“I think it’s a moral obligation to take care of our children,” Caferro said. “Some of us are really going to have to do more with less for others to survive. We do that by policies that create upward mobility. We’re going to need to sacrifice.”

During the 2009 Legislature, Caferro said she and some others called for a more targeted approach to spending federal stimulus dollars. They expressed the concern that federal stimulus money was going to “step right over the people who need help the most,” she said. One stimulus-funded program was targeted at this group.

Montana also saw its percentage of low birth weight babies increase to 7.2 percent in 2007 to rank 18th nationally. That’s up from 6.2 percent in 2000, for an increase of 16 percent.

Nationally, the trend rose from 7.6 percent in 2000 to 8.2 percent in 2007, for an increase of 8 percent.

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The state’s infant mortality rate, or deaths per 1,000 live births, grew to 6.3 deaths in 2007 to rank 13th nationally. It was at 6.1 deaths in 2000, for a 3 percent increase.

However, nationally, the infant mortality rate dropped from 6.9 deaths percent to 6.7 percent, for a decrease of 3 percent.

Montana’s child death rate, which is the deaths per 100,000 children ages 1 to 14, improved over the period, but is still higher than the national rate, Kids Count said. Montana had 33 deaths per 100,000 kids ages 1 to 14 in 2000, and it dropped to 22 in 2007. The state rate ranked 36th among the states.

Nationally, the rate dropped from 22 deaths per 100,000 children ages 1 to 14 in 2000 to 19 deaths in 2007 for a 14 percent reduction.

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Likewise, Montana’s teen death rate dropped, the Kids Count Data Book showed. Montana had 98 deaths per 100,000 teens ages 15 to 19 in 2000, and it was reduced to 80 in 2007 for a drop of 18 percent, Kids Count said. Montana still ranked 36th among states.

Montana’s teen birthrate, based on births per 1,000 females ages 15 to 19 remained the same at 37 in both 2007 and 2000, placing the state at 21st best nationally in 2007, Kids Count said.

Nationally, teen birth rate dropped from 48 in 2000 to 43 in 2007, for a 10 percent drop.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation is a private charitable organization that seeks to help improve futures for disadvantaged children in the United States.

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