Montana's top school administrator announced Wednesday that a $450,000 donation from the Missoula-based Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation will help communities across the state combat high school dropout rates.
It's the first major investment in Graduation Matters Montana, a statewide initiative that grew out of the successful Graduation Matters Missoula program, which was launched in early 2010 in the Missoula County Public Schools district.
Although her goal is lofty, Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau aims to cut the number of high school dropouts in half by 2014. About 2,000 high school students in Montana drop out each year.
"I believe if communities and schools can come together to make every student graduate, they will do it," she said.
The Washington foundation, which helped Missoula launch its initiative, decided to help other school districts try to achieve the same success. Missoula graduated 87 percent of its high school seniors in 2011 opposed to 80 percent in 2009. That change in just two years caught the attention of Juneau and the Office of Public Instruction. Juneau in turn took the model to school districts across the state.
Today, about a dozen school districts have or are planning to launch initiatives that aim to reduce the high school dropout rate. By 2014, OPI's goal is to have 45 new communities participating in the program.
"It had such a dramatic impact on the dropout rate in one year," said Mike Halligan, spokesman for the foundation. "We were so impressed with the model that (MCPS Superintendent) Alex (Apostle) put together ... we worked with OPI to replicate this statewide so we could have a dramatic reduction in statewide dropout rates."
The foundation has promised OPI $450,000 to allocate to school districts over the course of three years. Half of the money will go to support existing programs, Juneau said. The rest will be startup funds for school districts not currently a part of the program. The goal is to increase the number of school districts by 10 to 15 annually that are working to reduce student dropout rates.
School districts can apply for up to $10,000 each year to begin bringing together businesses, schools, parents, teachers, unions and other community members to create a communitywide plan for combating this problem. The school cannot fight this problem alone, Juneau said. It needs the full attention of the entire community.
The goal is to reach 22,000 students in school districts across Montana, Halligan said.
Juneau made the announcement Wednesday during a news conference at the OPI office in Helena and then hit the road to promote the statewide initiative in Anaconda.
Graduation Matters Montana was launched in 2010. Lawmakers didn't fund the program during the last legislative session, so the initiative has been running on a shoestring budget until now. That's why this assistance is so helpful, Juneau said.
"It's going to be a game changer for our Graduation Matters at the state level," she said. "I've been traveling to communities and everyone wants to be on board and they understand the need to increase graduation rates, but for us now to take some money and feed these local efforts is going to be very significant. This is the missing component."
It's also significant for the foundation as this is the largest programmatic grant it has ever donated, Juneau said.
School districts interested in reducing its high school dropout rates can apply on the OPI website for funding to become a Graduation Matters community.
Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at email@example.com.