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We have followed with interest and appreciation the important steps Mayor John Engen and local business leaders are taking to develop the Best Place Project. As leaders in the nonprofit and educational community, we support, and stand ready to help achieve, its laudable economic development goals.

What do schools and nonprofits have to do with bringing business to Missoula?

Everything.

First-rate schools and a robust nonprofit sector play a critical role in the complex and multifaceted world of economic development, including in corporate decisions about where to relocate, retain or launch businesses. Business leaders want qualified, well-educated workers. They want to grow their businesses and their families in healthy, vibrant communities with strong schools and an excellent “quality of place.” A top-notch school system and thriving nonprofit sector help make Missoula the caring, exceptional place we all love.

Over the last several months, we have worked with dozens of partners – business, government, religious and nonprofit leaders; educators, students and parents – to launch Graduation Matters Missoula, a communitywide effort to improve Missoula’s high school graduation rate. Its creation was sparked by the fact that too many of our kids drop out of high school, many of them never to return.

Dropping out often starts a downward spiral that harms not just disaffected and disillusioned students, but our entire community. Dropouts are more likely than high school graduates to be unemployed, poor, on welfare, in prison, or single parents whose own children drop out of school. The economic cost to our community and state is incalculable.

We see the goals of Graduation Matters Missoula and the Best Place Project as inextricably entwined. Education is the force that drives economic development, and the best way for a society to solve its social challenges. While we know that Graduation Matters Missoula is off to a strong start, we are painfully aware that encouraging kids to stay in school is just one piece of a challenging puzzle. A family lacking a stable home and income, adequate health care, or sufficient food, is unlikely to produce a high school graduate. And failing to graduate means that the cycle of underachievement, economic insecurity and lack of hope continues, harming families and damaging our local and state economy.

While Graduation Matters Missoula is engaging and motivating our community to encourage kids to stay in school, these efforts alone are not enough. What we now need is a communitywide call to action to address the factors that both hamper economic growth and contribute to an unacceptable dropout rate. If the Best Place Project is to realize its full potential, now is the time to galvanize our community to prioritize and effectively address issues of education, income, housing and health that affect quality of place. Left unaddressed, these issues can seriously hamper Missoula’s ability to attract and retain business and industry.

We stand ready to play a leadership role in this undertaking. We have seen repeatedly that Missoulians, once informed of community needs and shown an effective way to address them, will respond. We are confident that, collectively, our community can marshal the resources and craft solutions that will help Missoula truly reach its potential as the Best Place to build a business, to grow up, to learn, to grow strong, and grow old.

Susan Hay Patrick is chief executive officer of United Way of Missoula County. Alex Apostle is superintendent of Missoula County Public Schools.

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