When many of McKenzie Kralich’s friends got pregnant and dropped out of high school, she lost interest in attending, and it wasn’t long before she, too, quit.
Later Kralich earned her GED, but she says it was too easy and almost felt handed to her. Not to mention, she added, her family was disappointed.
“My dad calls it a ‘good-enough degree,’ ” she said.
Kralich embarked on a journey at Helena’s Access to Success program, which provides an opportunity for students to earn a diploma in a college setting.
Kralich began the program without a single credit, and within the next year will have a diploma in her hand and few college credits to boot.
Kralich, along with a group of 40 students from around Montana gathered at Carroll College on Friday for the first–ever State Superintendent’s Student Advisory Board summit. The hope, according to Superintendent Denise Juneau, is to increase the number of students who graduate from high school.
Montana students will provide a much-needed perspective on ways to improve the system and state policy, such as an initiative through the Office of Public Instruction called Graduation Matters Montana, which would increase the legal dropout age to 18.
Students came to Helena from rural communities such as Wibaux and Poplar and from larger cities like Billings.
“We are well aware of the serious consequences of young people not receiving a high school diploma,” Juneau said. “I believe students are the most important voice in helping us to best address the issue, and the Student Summit will begin an overdue conversation about what is working and what needs to improve.”
Other goals of Graduation Matters Montana include a support network between schools, businesses and community organization for student success; opportunities to inspire students to stay in school; and ultimately, an increase the number of students graduating.
Juneau said the group of students is diverse and come from all types of backgrounds.
“They’ve been really great about expressing their opinions,” she said. “They are finding commonalities — they have the same challenges and similar successes.”
Juneau acknowledged that the graduation rate is much higher in smaller communities than the larger ones. That could be for various reasons, she said, such as a school connection to the community, parent involvement or relationships with teachers.
“In larger schools, those personal relationships don’t always happen, and sometimes students get lost in the background,” she added. “There is something about small schools being the hub of the community.”
Juneau recently visited Culbertson High School which had 100 percent graduation last year, meaning that all 39 students who began school their freshman year finished.
Students at the summit focused on rules, which didn’t surprise Juneau, but their passion on the subject did.
“They were adamant that are too many rules and it impedes learning,” she said.
Juneau told the group that sometimes having one caring adult makes a difference on the student’s willingness to try.
One girl, however, disagreed and said students need the whole school to care, not just one person.
About half of the students raised their hands when asked if they feel like their administrators ask and care about their opinions.
Some students voiced their opposition to suspension policies because missing school only puts them further behind. Other students said teachers are hypocrites, especially when it comes to the no cell phone policy, because they text during class.
One young man suggested making pledges to graduate as freshman. Students would pair up with a graduation buddy so each student would have someone to look to for encouragement.
One Great Falls students said the home visit program at her school is helping to keep kids engaged.
Dalen Erickson, a senior at Sentinel High School in Missoula, said there should be more incentives to keep students motivated to attend. He used the example of getting to perform with his band if he comes to school on time for an agreed amount of time.
“It would be great to be able to do something you care about,” he said.
Kralich said having involved parents and flexibility for students plays key roles in keeping students in school. She works as a rehab specialist for the Center for Mental Health, and the Access to Success program allows her to take courses at various hours of the day.
OPI plans to reconvene the group in the spring to continue the conversation. The two-day event cost about $10,000, Madalyn Quinlan with OPI said. Half of that cost is paid by business partnerships.
Reporter Alana Listoe:
447-4081 or firstname.lastname@example.org