Falling graduation rates unacceptable

2010-08-22T00:06:00Z Falling graduation rates unacceptableIndependent Record Helena Independent Record
August 22, 2010 12:06 am  • 

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.

Copyright 2015 Helena Independent Record. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(7) Comments

  1. fishound
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    fishound - August 24, 2010 12:33 pm
    Has anybody out there asked the question, "Why is the dropout rate in our schools in the Helena District so bad, yet we have one of the highest paid Superintendents in the state?
    Is there no accountability for the job he does. Is the school board blind to his leadership? Why is his performance not tied to his salary? He would not last one week in the business world. Wakeup school board and do your job!!
    Report Abuse
    JUSTDAFACTS - August 23, 2010 5:55 pm
    There seems to be some other things to consider. For example, does Helena not have one of the highest pay scales in the State? I also think Helena has one of the lower student per classroom ratios. Maybe the issues is the political activism of so many teachers. Teachers who are more interested in pushing their personal views than teaching students how to think for themselves. These are some of my personal issues which I think are cause for thought, but I would sure be interested in a study of Helena drop-outs and why they leave school.
  3. skyryder
    Report Abuse
    skyryder - August 23, 2010 12:36 pm
    PrairieDog said: "What would the incentives be to keep kids in school? Maybe the incentives should be given to the parents. School should be enjoyable. More field trips and hands on learning."

    I believe we have a winner! Prairiedog. If the parents would do their job, and Government would let 'em do their job, , , Keeping the kids off the streets for all hours of the night, taking away the cell phones & designer clothing, driving privileges, and on and on for poor attendance or performance in school there might just be an improvement.
  4. PrairieDog
    Report Abuse
    PrairieDog - August 22, 2010 7:12 pm
    What would the incentives be to keep kids in school? Maybe the incentives should be given to the parents. School should be enjoyable. More field trips and hands on learning.
  5. caribouboy
    Report Abuse
    caribouboy - August 22, 2010 10:59 am
    I would like to know exactly how these figures are calculated. Wish the IR would cover that.

    There is a HUGE difference between 1000 incoming freshmen and a graduation rate of 71-78% and and 1000 incoming seniors and a graduation rate of 71-78%. I suspect these numbers are the latter which makes them MUCH less impressive. If it's the former then I would be very pleased with a 78% graduation rate.
  6. Auntie Lib
    Report Abuse
    Auntie Lib - August 22, 2010 7:47 am
    One thing that we could do that would incentivize students to stay in school is tie driving privileges to academic performance: Permanent license not issued until proof of graduation; driver's permit suspended for GPA below a certain point or revoked for dropouts and no permanent license granted until age of 21 without diploma or GED.

    This is a dynamic way for society to convey the importance of an education to young people; not only does it reward those who take their schooling seriously, but it underscores how difficult life would be without an education for those who might be considering dropping out.

    Just a thought.
  7. Purple
    Report Abuse
    Purple - August 22, 2010 2:02 am
    Damned straight it is UNACCEPTABLE.

    Sadly for parents and students, the ONLY solution OPI and school systems have is to demand more MONEY.

    HELLOOOOOOOOOO, throwing money at the problem, never has, has not, and NEVER WILL fix the problem in our education system.

    Rooting out and terminating INCOMPETENT teachers and returning to the basics of education - the three Rs - are just a couple of MANY things which OPI and the school system can do to turn things around.

    Alas, those two items are deemed TOO HARD to do, so OPI and the school system takes the easy and LAZY way out - give us more money and we will fix the problem.

    Imagine if teachers had to get REAL jobs at real businesses which have to make tough choices daily. I doubt very many of them would last through the 90-day probation period.

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