Graduation matters, Montana! All across the state, students are walking across the stage to receive their diploma and celebrating this significant milestone with their families and friends. As state superintendent, I have the privilege to share in several graduation celebrations. This year, I will speak at Rocky Boy’s high school graduation after being invited by two students who serve on my Student Advisory Board. These two young leaders started a peer mentoring program to improve their school’s graduation rate, and both are going to attend college.

I will also address the graduates of Miles Community College, which was recently recognized as one of the top 120 community colleges in the country. Miles Community College is working hard to ensure their programs prepare students to meet the workforce needs of their community and to provide opportunities for those already working to improve their skills so they can advance in their careers.

I will also speak to families and graduates in Great Falls, a community that has committed to Graduation Matters Montana and the promise we have made statewide to graduate more students prepared for college and careers. One thing is true no matter where I travel in Montana — education means opportunity and the chance for a brighter future.

For some Montana students, their graduation ceremony will also be a reminder of the friends and classmates who aren’t walking across the stage with them. With nearly 2,000 students dropping out every year, we all have work to do to make sure our state has the educated workforce necessary to compete in a global economy. I know it will take entire communities, working together to achieve the goal I have set of cutting our dropout rate in half by 2014. I also know that Montanans are up for the challenge.

This imperative to ensure an educated workforce for Montana is why 27 communities have launched their own locally designed Graduation Matters initiatives. And students are taking the lead in their communities as well, working with their peers and school leaders on “I Pledge to Graduate” events. Since October, nearly 3,000 students have taken the pledge to graduate.

I know we must do more than simply graduate more students from high school. We must make sure Montana students are prepared for the jobs of the future, many of which will require training and education beyond high school.

That’s why I worked with the Board of Public Education to raise academic standards in English and math. It’s also why I worked with my partners in higher education to provide the ACT at no cost for all juniors for the next seven years, allowing every student the opportunity to assess their college-readiness. Giving every student the opportunity to see if they are ready for college or if they need to adjust their coursework during their senior year in order to get ready is going to pay off for our students and their families.

When I visit with students, they are clear in their desire that their classes relate to real-world experiences, prepare them for careers and include hands-on learning. Another critical partnership with the Montana University System is Big Sky Pathways, which links students to career coursework paths so they earn college credits and explore careers while they are in high school.

As you celebrate the graduates in your life, remember that investing in our young people is the only way to ensure our future economic success. Making sure that a high school diploma means each student is prepared to pursue their dreams is the promise of public education and the goal we must continue to strive to meet together as educators, families, students and community members. Our economic future depends on us delivering on that promise.

Denise Juneau is Montana’s state superintendent of public instruction.

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