Every year about 60 students drop out of Bozeman High School. Another 47 drop out in Belgrade and 23 quit school in Livingston. Over the past decade, more than 1,000 local students have dropped out.

A coalition of Bozeman-area school and community leaders has been working for two years without fanfare to get more of those students to graduate.

Now they’re going public with the name Graduation Matters Gallatin, adopted from a statewide campaign launched by Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau. They’re spreading the message that graduation makes a huge difference in the lives of kids and in the community’s future and economy.

“Every kid is important and every single one we can get moving on this pathway is important,” Carol Townsend, Greater Gallatin United Way president, said Wednesday. “Right now, we want the community to start talking about it – graduation matters.”

The coalition includes school leaders from Bozeman, Belgrade and Livingston, United Way, Thrive, Montana State University’s education department, Gallatin County Youth Court Services and the nonprofit Human Resource Development Council and Community Mediation Center.

It’s a huge step, Townsend said, to have everyone sending the same message: “We have too many children dropping out.”

Dropouts are likely to earn 20 percent less than those who graduate, more likely to need public assistance and more likely to be arrested and jailed. Roughly 80 percent of Gallatin County jail inmates didn’t complete high school, and dropouts’ children are more likely to drop out too.

Getting all students to graduation has to start early, Townsend said. If kids can’t read well by fourth grade, they’re four times more likely to drop out.

Locally, smaller high schools tend to have high graduation rates. The lowest federal, four-year graduation rates in 2010 were Belgrade High’s 71 percent and Park High’s 76 percent.

Bozeman’s 88 percent graduation rate is the highest among the state’s largest, AA school districts, according to the state Office of Public Instruction. However, Bozeman’s dropout rate of 3.2 percent per year is higher than Missoula’s.

Kirk Miller, Bozeman school superintendent, attributed Bozeman’s higher graduation rate to many long-term efforts, including the Bridger Alternative Program at Bozeman High, created 20 years ago to help students at risk of dropping out.

“We’re making a difference for students, and I think we’re being effective,” Miller said. “It means in Bozeman we have the … highest graduation rate. But it’s not (a dropout rate of) zero, so we’re going to keep working on it.”

This fall, Bozeman High added three new programs to keep kids from dropping out, thanks to a $78,000 Prevention Incentive Funds grant from the state and collaboration with Gallatin County’s Youth Court Services.

That supported http://www.bozemandailychronicle.com/article_260d2038-4944-11e0-a049-001cc4c03286.html"> creation of a new A2X program, or alternative to expulsion, so students punished for breaking school rules don’t have to just sit at home. Instead they can come to an isolated classroom at Bozeman High and keep up with their classes.

A new transitions class was also created for freshmen at risk of dropping out, Miller said.

A new credit recovery program has been created, with a counselor and teacher’s aide hired to help students who flunked freshman math class, for example. They can retake the class online and don’t have to struggle with it all on their own.

“When kids fall behind in credits, that’s when they drop out of school,” Bozeman High Principal Rob Watson said.

Graduation Matters was launched by Missoula County Public Schools a year ago with lots of publicity, advertising, a logo, banners and a rally at Washington-Grizzly Stadium with the governor and mayor speaking to nearly 1,000 high school freshmen.

In Missoula, the dropout rate fell 49 percent in one year. http://missoulian.com/news/state-and-regional/article_37188f4c-2451-11e0-ac3d-001cc4c03286.html"> The Missoulian reported that what made a big difference was that high schools started tracking every no-show student. Many, who would have been counted as dropouts, were found to have moved.

Townsend said the Bozeman coalition has been working on the graduation issue for two years, since 2009 when United Way Worldwide put out calls for projects to increase graduation rates. The Gallatin area was one of 20 communities to win funding, along with Chicago, Dallas and other big cities. The local United Way was picked because it has worked closely with local schools since 1997 to provide after-school programs, which have grown to serve 23 schools and 1,000 children.

Townsend said she and Watson traveled to a conference at Harvard’s graduate school of education to learn the latest about dropout prevention. The result was creation of the Gallatin-area coalition, which meets monthly.

Graduation Matters Gallatin means that the whole community is involved in preventing dropouts, Townsend said, “instead of saying it’s the failure of school districts.”

Dropout and graduation rates

Here are the one-year dropout rates and four-year federal graduation rates for local schools in 2010, provided by the state OPI:

School Dropouts per year Graduated in four years
Bozeman High 3.2% 88%
Belgrade High 5.8% 71%
Manhattan High 2.6% 90%
Three Forks 1.9% 96%
Willow Creek 0% 33%
Lone Peak 8.7% 100%
West Yellowstone 3% 100%
Ennis 3.3% 86%
Twin Bridges 2% 91%
Harrison 2.6% 90%
Sheridan 0% 100%
Park High 3.4% 76%
Gardiner High 0% 93%
Shields Valley 0% 100%