Montana Public Radio

Montana's Graduation Rate Hits All-Time High

Jan 13, 2015

Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau got right to the point when she opened a news conference Tuesday in the Governor’s office.

“I am proud to announce that Montana’s graduation rate has hit an all-time high of 85. 4 percent.”

That compares with a graduation rate of just over 80 percent in 2010.To put those numbers in perspective, only nine states have graduation rates higher than 85 percent, according to a U.S. Department of Education report from 2012.

Juneau praised a statewide program called “Graduation Matters”, which gives money to local school districts for dropout prevention programs. Tom Moore says “Graduation Matters” made a big difference in his district.

“Within the first year of our work together, our dropout rate went from 210 to 156 or something like that.”

Moore is an assistant superintendent with the Great Falls School District, which created four separate approaches, or quadrants, targeting students, parents, teachers, and community leaders with the stay-in-school message.

“Each of those quadrants has an action plan, and they have activity that they’ve been doing for the last three years, with some assistance and support from United Way, who is the fiscal agent for the graduation matters grant, and we’ve seen a steady decrease in our dropout rate,” said Moore.

“Graduation Matters” was funded three years ago by a $450,000 grant from the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation. The foundation used the same news conference to announce it’s renewing the grant for another three years at the same amount.

Juneau also renewed her push to drive the graduation rate still higher, by changing the law that lets students drop out as young as sixteen.

“We need to give students and parents another tool to keep kids in school so they can graduate and have a better chance at success. The last time the dropout age was changed was 1921.”

Juneau’s bill would require students to stay in school until age 18, unless they graduate first. It’s a proposal that has been shot down multiple times in the state legislature, despite support from public educators. Steve White with the Montana Coalition of Home Educators testified against the proposal in 2013 and still opposes it.

“Montana law specifically states that the parents for home-school students are in solely charge of making that determination, and there is this risk that if you use this language that’s being proposed, that that could change, and that the office of public instruction and the board of education could for the first time in 35 years become involved in examining home school students.”

White also says there’s no correlation between a state’s mandatory attendance age and its graduation rate. Statistics seem to support that claim. Utah requires students to stay in school until age 18, but its graduation rate is lower than in North Dakota, where students are free to leave when they turn 16. Juneau’s proposal to raise the dropout age comes up for a hearing next week in the Senate Education Committee.