Investing in early interventions like preschool, developing a career pathways program, and building relationships between adults and students were some of the suggestions in addressing the Helena Public Schools’ high dropout rate at a board work session Tuesday night.
After more than an hour of conversations about student achievement and graduation rates, the board agreed to form a working group to develop a plan with goals and next steps.
“I’m delighted we are finally sitting here in a circle to talk about these issues,” trustee Cherche Prezeau said.
Prezeau has brought up graduation rates at every board meeting for months.
The district calculates the graduation rate at Helena High School at 74.4 percent and Capital at 81.1 percent, and Superintendent Bruce Messinger says at the end of the day that’s not good enough.
Part of the problem is the gap between the haves and the have–nots, school officials say. Prezeau said the district does a good job of providing a solid education for the top 20 percent and those on the lower academic chart, but it’s the students in the middle who aren’t getting the help they need.
Home visits with families where students are identified as at risk are working in some of the schools to strengthen the school-home connection. It’s not in all schools though, notes Pam Birkeland, data assessment administrator.
A key component in dropout prevention, according to recommendations from the Institute of Education Sciences, is personalizing the learning environment, because it fosters a sense of belonging. Participants at the meeting said that could be achieved with small class sizes.
Another recommendation is to assign adult advocates to students at risk of dropping out, and Prezeau said this doesn’t necessarily mean teachers.
“I know there are people out there that are willing to help with kids and be advocates,” she said.
Trustee Terry Beaver wasn’t sold on the six recommendations from IES.
He said the schools that are successful with dropout rates are the small, Class C, schools that lack the recommended data systems, for example. He said it’s impossible to assign adult advocates when teachers are teaching seven classes a day.
IES gave other recommendations such as providing a rigorous and relevant instruction to better engage students and provide the skills needed to graduate and to serve them after they leave school.
Trustee Don Jones agreed that some of the recommendations naturally happen in small schools.
“In our larger schools it’s easy to get lost — you can go through school and not even have the same teacher twice,” he said.
Decisions will come when developing the budget this spring, and this working group will be charged with making recommendations to the board about where to invest.
Messinger said that shifting money around is possible, if that’s the board’s desire. For example, if investing in pre-kindergarten is the decision, Title 1 money could be taken from the middle school level, creating bigger classes, and put into pre-K programs. And he says there’s a need because there are 150 students in Helena on the Head Start waiting list.
Myhre suggested the community should be more involved with early interventions in the preschool years.
“We can’t just absorb more responsibility. We need to share the burden,” she said.
Shanna Kimball was the only teacher who attended the meeting.
The Kessler Elementary teacher has spent 14 of her 21 years in education teaching kindergarten and first grades.
“As a teacher I’ve been concerned with the dropout rate for a long time,” she said after the meeting. “I’m interested in being involved in the solution.”
Administrators and teachers often react at the middle or high school levels, but students who need help can be identified much earlier. She says she can look around her classroom and identify which students would be at risk for not completing high school.
“If we can get students up to speed by second grade, I think they’ll be successful — it’s a critical time,” she said.
Today’s kindergarten classes in the district are bursting at the seams, and many schools have classes with 23 students, she said. Having smaller class sizes would allow teachers to give more individual attention. Recognizing that it’s not realistic, Kimball said 16 to 18-student classes would be ideal.
Trustee Robin LeNeve said sticking with smaller classes or smaller learning communities within the bigger communities would be better than larger, impersonal classes.
All the ideas and suggestions will be explored by the working group in hopes of addressing the poor completion rate district-wide and board members said they were eager to get the ball rolling.
Reporter Alana Listoe: 447-4081 or firstname.lastname@example.org