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 alana.listoe@helenair.com

(7) comments

fivemsandme
fivemsandme

As a mother of four who had two children graduate and do what is expected of them in school and two who decided to leave school and find a different path. It is my belief what is mentioned in this article is not what is needed. Although the suggestions are good and would offer some help. The help from my point of view is needed in the High Schools. Why do you think the Class C schools are so successful (I also went to a class C school) they are successful because it is like family. It makes kids want to go to school each day to see their other family and the whole community is invested in helping kids. I would have never believed that I would have children who would leave school without graduating. I was aware things were not good and I started at the top asking for help to keep them in school and I got nothing. I begged for someone else to see what I was asking for but nothing. I found here in Helena if you do not fit the norm of what the school thinks is a perfect student they have no real use for you. Don't get me wrong I take some blame as well as I put blame with my children for their choices. I did make education a priority and went to everything my children ever had at school yet they still left school. I believe something needs to start as soon as they enter High School. Of course I notice in the article they aren't really asking the people who have been affected by dropping out ie. parents or kids. Without that input my belief is nothing will change!

justme59601
justme59601

so now that the school board has decided to teach the kids the ins and outs of sex, now they're finally going to address the dropout problem? anyone else see how interesting the timing of this is?

by the way fivemsandme, they don't want your input as a parent. this is just window dressing.

GivePeaceAChance
GivePeaceAChance

One of the reasons people drop out of school is that they see it for what it often is: a meaningless execise in a daily ritual of showing your obedience and compliance to the government and the parents. For many people there is no value in going to high school. They are not going to learn anything other than memorizing useless (and often distorted) facts. They are better off pursuing their interests and getting on with their careers. Do you really need a high school diploma to be a carpenter or a logger or a welder? Only if "society" requires it as proof that you obediantly sat through years of their mind numbing propaganda, but not because of any knowledge gained in school, for no knowledge is gained.

For many schools just crush creativity and independent thought. That is what all instituions are created for. Be it churches, schools, un-loving parenting, military, sports teams, etc.

So, bottom line, a high drop out rate may portend good things. Like many more who will not be duped into joining the military because they still have some independent thought lef tin their brains.

DeltaEpsilonKappa
DeltaEpsilonKappa

I raised 4 children - and dropping out of school was not an option. I made sure they did their homework every night - attended parent teacher conferences and they lived by strict rules. Some (not all) kids just don't care about their future. You can't blame the schools for this - the desire to exceed has to come from the family.

Schools today are nothing like they were when we were kids. My kids didn't carry cell phones and if they got in trouble in school they got it twice as bad when they got home. Yes - there are things I'm sure that can be done at the school level BUT it's still the parents responsibility to ensure their kids are attending school AND providing them the desire to graduate.

exlogger
exlogger

They ain't seen nothing yet. I know of at least 20 kids that are getting pulled out by their parents. Thanks to this awesome sex-ed curriculum. At "least" $4500 dollars of direct money for each kid. Those goofy liberals need to think twice before messing with the tenacity of a protective conservative parent. I hope they lose their jobs for their arrogance.

My programming teacher used to always tell the class. "Those who can... do it, those who can't... teach it". (He was programmer by day, teacher by night).

4fishing
4fishing

Sure hope this panel will have some drop outs on it! If you want to know why people drop out ask them. I droped out because I was 17 and had no financial support, needed a job and that was the end of it. Oh I later went and got my ged. The reasons for dropping out change as society changes.

GivePeaceAChance
GivePeaceAChance

Hey, exlogger, I used to be a logger also. Till I got smart.

I quit logging and started hauling used axles to California for $2.00 each. Bought 'em in Montana for $2.00 each. Friend of mine said you aren't making any money doing that. To which I replied: "True, but it sure beats logging."

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