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Message: Graduation really does matter

The eight empty chairs at the center of last week’s “I Pledge to Graduate” assembly at Stevensville School symbolizes the Stevensville students who dropped out this year. The average drop-out rate in the state is 7%. Stevensville has reduced its drop-out rate from 5.7% to 2.3% over the last two years and hopes to do even better.

By Michael Howell

In an effort to cut down on the number of students dropping out of the public school system, State Superintendent of Public Schools Denise Juneau put together the first ever Superintendent’s Student Advisory Board in her effort to include student ideas and voices in state level policies. What Juneau heard from the students was that they seek relevant course work and real-world experiences, clear and consistent rules, a positive school climate and meaningful relationships at their schools. It spurred Juneau to launch a statewide “I Pledge to Graduate” campaign to help students set their sights on graduation, on college and career readiness and reduce the drop-out rate.

Schools across the state have taken up with the campaign, including the Stevensville School District. Last year former Stevensville Superintendent Kent Kultgen and High School Principal Brian Gum successfully applied for a grant to help fund their own campaign. As a result, a Graduation Matters team was established at the beginning of the year to help create a support network between schools, businesses and community organizations. The aim is to create school-based and community-based opportunities for success. The Graduation Matters team is composed of school personnel, parents, business people and community leaders.

Gum said one benefit of the program was the chance to meet with people from other schools from around the state at a summit in Helena to collaborate on strategies. He said one result of the first summit was they learned that the Stevensville School District was already on the right track. He said that over the last two years the school has worked hard on providing a robust student advisory program, the opportunity for morning tutorials, and a successful after school program called STEP, all of which have served, in his opinion, to help reduce the drop-out rate at the school.

According to Gum, the average drop-out rate in the state is 7%. He said in the 2010-11 school year the drop-out rate at Stevensville was 5.7%. That was reduced to 2.3% in the 2011-12 school year.

“It would be great to do even better,” said Gum. “I’d like to cut that in half. I don’t know if that’s possible, but we are going to try.”

The state grant is renewable over a three-year period and Gum believes it will serve the school well in keeping up the momentum of the “I Pledge to Graduate” campaign.

At the “I Pledge to Graduate” assembly, the Stevensville Mayor Gene Mim Mack encouraged the students to think about and prepare for a future that would include a good job and the ability to make money.

“Money is important to you and to your future,” he said, “but it’s not the only important thing. Responsibility also matters.” He said accepting responsibility for one’s life and one’s future and one’s community was vitally important.

The students also got an earful from Forrest Gump, or someone who looks an awful lot like Forrest Gump, who talked about the “Gumption” that is required to accomplish important goals like graduating. He encouraged the students to listen to their own thoughts and be cognizant of their actions, and respect the thoughts and actions of others and be ready to gear in with them.

Forrest Gump was really Steve Weber, a Forrest Gump “look-alike” who has turned that coincidence into a motivational presentation that is at once insightful, entertaining and bound to inspire.

Weber told the students how possibilities rain down like feathers from the sky all the time, but most are ignored. Then he talked about his resemblance to the Forrest Gump character and how it represented a possibility that just lay at his feet, ignored for years, like so many other feathers and possibilities. Until one day, he took the initiative and picked up the feather and made a career for himself. Not just a career, but a very rewarding career and one that he chose for himself. He encouraged the students to do the same and emphasized how important graduation was in the big picture of life. He encouraged them to make the pledge and to pick up their own feather, one of their own choice, a choice that only they can “figure out.”

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