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Graduation Matters at Stevensville High School

By Victoria Howell

The school year is just about at an end and Stevensville High School Principal Brian Gum is assessing the completion of the first year of the Graduation Matters program at his school. The program, aimed at lowering Montana’s high school drop out rate, was funded through a $10,000 grant from the state Office of Public Instruction.

A year of activities that focused on keeping kids in school through graduation culminated with a Business Roundtable at which representatives from 12 local businesses made presentations to the students about why a high school diploma really matters.

Gum says he was very satisfied with the event. “It went very well,” said Gum. “I heard positive feedback from the kids. And some of the presenters told me they wanted to participate next year and were already thinking of ways to improve what they said.”

Last year, Stevensville’s drop out rate was 2.3%, about eight kids, down from 5.7% in 2011. Gum says he wants to make sure that Stevensville’s rate doesn’t go up again.

Gum said, “It’s actually hard to beat that [2.3%]. To reach 0% would be very difficult. Our goal is between 1 and 2%. I would be pretty happy with that. That’s our challenge.”

Stevensville has close to 400 kids in the high school. The Graduate Matters program kicked off this school year with a fall pledging assembly in the gym where all students, grades 6-12, pledged to stay in school.

Gum also formed an advisory committee made up of community leaders to try to raise awareness and involve the entire community in the issue. Advisory committee members attended the pledge event.

“After that kick off, we’re now reaching out to the elementary,” said Gum. “We have starting instituting the program with the younger kids. Teachers are now doing targeted activities in the elementary school.”

Through improved tracking of student progress, Stevensville found that students most often drop out after their 16th birthday. The Graduation Matters team determined that there were gaps in the school’s efforts to track students once they leave the school. They have now implemented a more structured system with multiple checks built in. Additionally, they are collaborating with Job Corps and Montana Youth Challenge to ensure that at-risk students who enroll in those programs graduate with a Stevensville High School diploma rather than a GED. Stevensville has also initiated an advisory program in which all students’ academic progress is monitored twice every quarter. Credit deficits are noted and evaluated and students are referred to an intervention team that implements the following strategies: morning tutorials, after-school remediation, and lab classes.

Additionally, Stevensville has introduced the Youth Enhancement Team at the secondary level to address the behavioral and emotional needs of at-risk students. The school found that some 8th grade students were struggling through the transition to high school, so the social promotion policy was modified and a summer school for students requiring remediation in core content areas is being implemented. Stevensville has also surveyed the students to get data on students’ educational experiences and is initiating changes based on student input. Student government and club opportunities are being promoted through the advisory program and, as a result, the level of participation in these has dramatically increased. Additionally, the advisory program has implemented curricula and activities to create small-group communities in which students can have fun together, and student pride assemblies where students receive collectible Stevensville “dog tags” that reflect their involvement/ achievements in the school. Faculty is being given free admission to all extra-curricular events so that teachers and students can interact outside the classroom.

To encourage parental involvement with their children’s education, the district has initiated student-led conferences, and last year’s attendance by parents and students was 96%. Teachers now have 15 minutes of professional time each week to contact parents.

To further assist students in staying in school, for the first time in many years Stevensville will hold a summer school. Gum wrote a grant for a 7-12 summer school to teach math, reading and writing in the first three weeks after regular school gets out. The program will have four teachers and one director. Letters were sent out to the parents of 73 students who didn’t receive passing grades in certain classes. The summer school classes will help those students to reach a passing grade and not have to repeat the class in the future.

“This is another way to help kids stay in the system,” said Gum.

The Graduation Matters program ends on a very positive note this year, as Gum just received word that a grant that he and teacher Pam Johnson wrote to fund the program for another year was approved.

“We’re definitely on the right track with this,” said Gum.

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