When the Office of Public Instruction released its latest statewide graduation rates in early August, a collective groan emanated from nearly every school district office across Montana.
Graduation rates for the 2008-09 school year were down. Dropout rates, almost across the board, were on the rise.
Those figures, of course, included the Helena School District. OPI pegged the number of high school students who graduated in Helena as dropping from 78 percent in the 2007-08 school year to 71 percent in 2008-09. Capital High had higher graduation rates than Helena High, though both schools saw decreased rates — Capital from 84 percent to 77 percent, Helena High from 72 percent to 67 percent, OPI found.
All of the rates fall below the new 85 percent graduation requirement established by the Office of Public Instruction this year to meet No Child Left Behind standards, up from the original 80 percent benchmark. The state’s graduation rates as a whole came in at 80 percent. Recent statistics released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation placed Montana’s 2008 high school dropout rates as the 44th worst in the country.
Moreover, OPI reports that not only did the graduation rate in Helena drop last year, but it’s also below that of Billings, Bozeman, Butte, Great Falls and Missoula.
In a telephone interview with a member of the Independent Record editorial board Friday afternoon, Helena Public Schools Superintendent Bruce Messinger said the OPI numbers do not match the district’s calculations, which he said are approximately 7.5 percent higher at each school.
Messinger cited many reasons for the discrepancy. For instance, when the group of students being calculated entered high school in 2004-05, each student in this “cohort group” could do one of four things: graduate, transfer, continue schooling incomplete, or drop out.
Because OPI has no statewide mechanism for tracking its students, many students were counted twice; or not at all; or incorrectly. A fifth-year senior group was also included in the cohort group.
That lack of proper accounting for all its students will be fixed next year when OPI implements a statewide student ID system.
The Helena School District, however, has accounted for every student. And that’s why Messinger says district graduation rates are indeed higher.
That’s credible, but it still doesn’t explain why Helena falls behind the graduation rate in most other Montana urban cities.
Messinger acknowledges that this clearly isn’t where school officials want to be, and that they’re focused on improving graduation rates. The school district has several key programs aimed at retaining students and improving the overall graduation rate, for example: the Project for Alternative Learning high school; Access to Success, a dropout recovery program for 16- to 21-year-olds; hiring graduation coaches and mental health counselors; and engaging families through home visits, among others.
But are they working? If not, what needs to change?
And does the school district’s philosophy of accepting every student come back to hurt graduation rates?
“Our philosophy is if they really want to come back to school and their chances of graduating are not very good ... then we’ll enroll them,” Messinger said. “But as soon as we take them, they get into that cohort group, and they’re going to count as a dropout. Not every district in the nation is that welcoming.”
While Helena High School and its feeder schools experience a higher Title One dependency than across town at Capital, this isn’t the inner city. Helena, as a whole, brings in above-average income. We’re also above state average in home ownership, education levels and voter turnout.
We pay our teachers one of the highest rates in the state — and we have excellent educators to show for it.
We pay our superintendent well — and we have an excellent one in Messinger to show for it.
The community continually does its part by passing operational bond levies year after year — and our schools operate at full funding because of it.
All of which makes falling behind the curve in graduation rates even more unacceptable. Whether it’s 71 percent of Helena students or 78 percent, depending on the calculation, they’re both inferior. This community deserves better.
As Craig Crawford, the new principal at Project for Alternative Learning, said in an Independent Record story last week: “We can do better.”
As teachers and administrators, but also as parents and especially as students, you bet we can.