HELENA — The percentage of Montana students who graduate from high school has risen over the past decade, though state officials say the dropout rate remains a problem they hope to cut in half in the next two years.
Montana graduated 270 more students in 2009 compared to 2002 and the state's graduation rate rose from 79.8 percent to 82 percent over that period, according to a new report by a children's advocacy organization.
Those rates outpaced the national average of 72.6 percent in 2002 and 75.5 percent in 2009.
The report will be presented Monday in Washington at the Building a Grad Nation summit primarily sponsored by America's Promise Alliance, a children's advocacy organization founded by former Secretary of State Colin Powell. It was authored by John Bridgeland and Mary Bruce of Civic Enterprises, a public policy firm focused on social change, and Robert Balfanz and Joanna Fox of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University.
The report says there are more than 1 million school dropouts each year in the U.S., costing the nation hundreds of billions in lost revenue, lower economic activity and increased social services.
The initiative's goal is to reach a 90 percent graduation rate nationwide by 2020. Montana's rate would have to increase at a much faster pace, .7 percent per year over the next eight years, to meet that target.
The state uses a different methodology than the report to track students who complete high school. Montana's high school completion rate, which counts students who receive equivalency degrees and who take more than four years to graduate, rose slightly from 81.8 percent in 2001 to 82.1 percent in 2010, the most recent state data available.
The 2011 data is expected to be released on Tuesday.
Regardless of the methodology used, Office of Public Instruction Superintendent Denise Juneau, said Montana is in the "middle of the pack" among states when it comes to graduation rates.
Juneau, who is running for re-election this year, said that isn't good enough and her goal is to halve the state's 2009 high school dropout rate of 5.1 percent — more than 2,000 students a year — by 2014 through legislation and programs like her Graduation Matters initiative.
The relationships students have with their peers and adults connected to their schools, and their belief that what they're learning is important to their lives, are important factors to keeping kids in school, Juneau said.
"There are just a lot of ways for students to fall through the cracks," Juneau said. "We need to make connections between a caring adult and a student they might see as on the way to dropping out."
Her Graduation Matters initiative, a statewide version of a program that has seen Missoula high school graduation rates rise the last couple of years, lets communities come up with their own plans to improve the rates and make sure the students are college or career ready.
A focus will be on American Indian students in schools on reservations and in large cities, she said. American Indians, which make up about 11 percent of the statewide student enrollment, have a disproportionately high dropout rate, 10.6 percent in 2010.
Juneau said she also plans to re-introduce legislation that would raise from 16 to 18 the age that students can drop out. Similar bills failed to pass in the last two legislative sessions.
Juneau faces Republican candidate Sandy Welch in November's election.