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Kalispell Works to Improve Graduation Rate
District Adopts Statewide Initiative
Every school year begins with goals – by students, teachers and administrators – but this year in Kalispell educators have a big one: to reduce high school dropouts and improve graduation rates.

“Our top goal this year is we are going to save some of these students,” Darlene Schottle, superintendent of Kalispell public schools, said. “We are not going to let them leave school.”

Schottle can rattle off any number of metrics demonstrating the improving performance of Kalispell’s schools: high school students’ average ACT test scores exceed state and national levels, and those students also regularly put up some of the best numbers in the state on the Montana University Writing Assessment.

But a more stubborn statistic has been the district-wide graduation rate: 78 percent. That means about one in five kids who enter high school in Kalispell don’t graduate in four years.

“We haven’t made nearly an impact on our graduation rate,” Schottle said. “Obviously there’s something missing here because we’re still losing students.”

Graduation rates are not the same as dropout rates, though when one improves the other does too. But students can drop out more than once in the span of their high school career. And when a student graduates in five years, or transfers to LASER Alternative School or Bridge Academy, that also counts against the graduation rate – even if those kids are continuing their education or ultimately graduate in more than four years.

The most recent graduation rate only identifies the number of students who started as freshmen in 2006 and graduated in 2010. And Kalispell still does better than the state average graduation rate of 73 percent, but neither Schottle nor other educators are satisfied.

“I just struggle with the fact that we’re not getting at least 90-95 percent of our students through school,” Schottle said.

This year, Kalispell schools are incorporating a statewide initiative called Graduation Matters Montana, which builds on the effort local educators are already undertaking to keep kids in school. The program entails everything from employing graduation coordinators to work with students in danger of dropping out, to reaching out to community members and parents to help show kids the benefits of graduating, as well as the consequences of not finishing.

Preparing for her annual address last week, Schottle said she planned to ask teachers beginning the new school year: “What are you doing to get students out into your community and bring the community into your school?”

Examples of that Kalispell administrators have already organized include the freshman career fairs, where upwards of 100 local professionals make themselves available to freshmen – in fields ranging from farmers to attorneys – to help kids understand the education necessary to pursue a career in which they may have interest. It also demonstrates how few options exist for those lacking a high school degree.

“Our community has been a huge asset there,” Schottle said. “Our intent is to try to build on that.”

High school dropouts earn $9,200 less annually than graduates, on average, and $1 million less over a lifetime than college graduates, according to the Montana Office of Public Instruction’s 2008-2009 Dropout Report. Dropping out of high school also increases a teenager’s likelihood for unemployment, to receive government assistance and to spend time in jail or prison.

The school district will also ask more of parents to encourage their kids to stay in school.

“We’re going to start doing more parent outreach,” Schottle said. “We have to make this a joint responsibility.”

“Are you really emphasizing the absolute importance of finishing high school?” she added. “We’re trying to look at that whole policy of how we can involve everyone in this process.”

Within the high schools, Schottle said the approach to reducing dropouts stem primarily from two areas: the obvious component of whether a student is academically competent, but also another, less obvious factor: “Are they comfortable?”

This means that the connections a student develops in high school – through sports, a club activity or bonding with a teacher – also bear on whether that student will stay in school or leave.

“This is usually something that helps add that extra layer of involvement,” she said.

At Glacier High, an existing administrator is taking on the role of “graduation coordinator,” while Flathead High is hiring one, whose job will be to connect with students in danger of dropping out, with the goal of, “trying to find ways to have contact with a meaningful adult that will consistently check in with these kids.”

Schools can almost always identify those students most likely to drop out, which makes it even more troubling when they eventually do.

“If we don’t address it early,” she said, “we can pretty much guarantee that they’re going to be a non-completer.”

School officials are conducting exit interviews with students leaving to learn their reasons, and to ensure they are aware of all options available to allow them to stay in school.

Any number of reasons could contribute to the dropout rate, from added stress at home when a parent loses their job due to the the economy, to falling behind in credits.

“If we can get to them and say, ‘What is it that is causing you this issue?’” Schottle said. “Sometimes they don’t have enough knowledge about the system to know they don’t have to drop out.”

And though the short-term success of the effort will be difficult to quantify, its effectiveness will ultimately be judged by the graduation and dropout rates in coming years.
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