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Missoula County Public Schools issued an apology after a letter to Big Sky High School parents stated the school would focus on improving the graduation rate for white students  and omitted mention of other groups, such as the high graduation rate of its Native American students compared to the state average.

The letter quickly circulated around social media and through emails on Thursday, and people expressed concerns that the letter only acknowledged the graduation rate improvement goal for white students, but did not acknowledge improvements among non-white students.

"What we do need to do before we send out communications like this is we have to pay more attention to the details and context, so that's where we made our mistake,” Superintendent Rob Watson said. “It's something that we apologize for.”

The misstep overshadowed a positive outcome for Big Sky: four of five designated subgroups are exceeding their goals, according to the school:

  • Economically disadvantaged students: 80.7% graduation rate; 77.6% goal
  • English learner students: 90% graduation rate; 61.5% goal
  • American Indian: 95% graduation rate; 67.5% goal
  • Students with disabilities: 84.6% graduation rate; 79.1% goal

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires schools to report to the state and federal government which subgroup has placed them on the targeted assistance list, and the state lists "white students" as one subgroup.

"An area for improvement and call to action, Big Sky High is in our first year of Targeted School Improvement by the Office of Public Instruction because our white students had a graduation rate of 86%," read the letter sent to parents on Oct. 21.

The school's graduation rate of 86% for white students fell short of the state’s goal of 88% for the same subgroup. It was the only subgroup of the school’s students that did not meet the state goal.

Thursday, the school sent a follow-up letter to parents that explained why white students were the only subgroup mentioned in the original letter, and apologized for excluding exemplary results of other subgroups, such as the school’s American Indian students who had a 95% graduation rate compared to the state average of 68%.

“I am sorry that we did not call out these exemplary results of our other subgroups in the previous message,” Big Sky Principal Jennifer Courtney said in the follow-up letter.

The letter also apologized for giving any families the impression that the school is only concerned about the achievement of white students. But some community members who work with underserved groups still had concerns.

“I'm not really buying or feeling that apology,” said Jamar Galbreath, a coordinator for Missoula’s IDEA for Racial Justice and the associate director of program innovation for Empower MT. “It just sort of irritates me, infuriates me more.”

Galbreath said he understands the state requirements and values the academic success of all students, but said he doesn’t feel the same energy is directed toward improving graduation rates and academic outcomes for students of color.

“This was just a slap in the face to so many of our marginalized communities,” he said. “It really just highlights and emphasizes a lot of the systemic racism that affects our education system.”

Galbreath said he felt some of the other subgroups that met the state’s target graduation rate should have been mentioned because they still graduated at lower rates than the average for white students, such as economically disadvantaged students who had an 80.7% graduation rate compared to the state goal of 77.6%.

The letter sent to parents on Oct. 21 was based on a template provided by the Office of Public Instruction for targeted support schools, although the office said it encouraged schools to provide context if they chose to use the template to explain their state report card results to parents.

“They could use if they wanted or not, and we also left it vague so that they could fill in local information,” said Dylan Klapmeier of OPI. “We were hoping that schools would add some local context to that and expand on it, because we can't do that for every school.”

Watson was not superintendent for the district when OPI sent the template to schools in April, and he said he was unaware of the suggestion to provide context when the district reviewed the letter before Big Sky principal Courtney sent it to parents.

“It wasn't our intent to make people upset or frustrated, but I can completely understand why they felt that way,” he said. “In hindsight, we should have spent more time on the original letter to provide more detail and context.”

Watson said the district recognizes and pays attention to other subgroups of students who are not included in the state report card. The follow-up letter sent to parents Thursday includes the graduation rates and state goals (listed above) for all five subgroups established in the state ESSA plan. At Big Sky, the graduation rate for all students was 86.4%, as was the goal.

Klapmeier said the same letter template sent to Big Sky administrators was sent to other schools that were targeted for improvement for various student subgroups. He said the office is always seeking feedback on ways they can improve, and said concerned community members can email OPI’s school improvement director at essainput@mt.gov.

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