STEVENSVILLE – Dropout rates at the high school here have fallen to record lows, while students are entering college more prepared than ever before – two success stories University of Montana President Royce Engstrom attributed to teachers.
Engstrom and other UM officials took their road trip to the Bitterroot Valley on Thursday, stopping in Stevensville, Victor and Hamilton to hear from teachers and discuss their efforts to boost graduation rates.
Brian Gum, principal at Stevensville High School, said dropout rates in recent years have fallen below 3 percent – down from nearly 7.5 percent just a few years ago.
This year, he said, it stands at less than 1 percent.
“All the programs are starting to work together – our morning tutorial, our advisory program and Graduation Matters,” Gum told Engstrom. “All the things we’re doing to catch those kids are producing end results, and they all have different impacts.”
Pam Johnson, one of several teachers present at Thursday’s meeting, said the Stevensville school has implemented a number of programs that are paying off.
The efforts include Graduation Matters – a statewide effort launched by the Montana Office of Public Instruction – and a push to work more closely with students.
Building small communities at the advisory level, Johnson added, is also making a difference.
“If you have one counselor overseeing all the transcripts for 400 students, you’re not going to catch those gaps,” she said. “We have all those eyes on the kids now and how they’re doing, and I think that’s made a big difference.”
Engstrom and UM officials have visited more than 25 cities and towns across the state in recent months. The tour aims to build a stronger collaboration with state teachers and promote UM as a university of choice.
Stevensville High School graduates around 85 students a year. But its incoming freshmen class includes 110 students, each a prospective college student.
“We want to learn more about our communities and learn about the schools,” Engstrom said. “We’re interested in student success and that transition from high school to college.”
Engstrom and Peggy Kuhr, vice president of integrated communications, highlighted the university’s 174 academic programs, along with its Office of Civic Engagement and its Global Leadership Initiative.
Engstrom also praised teachers for the preparedness of today’s college-bound students, saying it has improved in recent years.
“A few years ago, 30 percent of our incoming class needed remedial math or writing, or both,” Engstrom said. “That’s down now to around 22 or 23 percent, and I credit you folks for making that progress.”
Engstrom said the university is also pushing students to prepare for college by taking a full curriculum of preparatory courses while still in high school, including math, English and a foreign language.
The success rate of students who complete college prep courses are significant, Engstrom said. The work reduces the time needed to achieve a college degree, along with the costs that come with it.
“At the same time, we recognize that we’ll always have – and need to have – developmental opportunities,” Engstrom said. “It would be nice to see college-bound students get their need for developmental work down to 0 percent. I know that’s ideal, but it’s a goal we’d like to work toward.”
UM administrators and Stevensville teachers dined on a lunch prepared by Sue Wasser’s culinary arts class – a meal comprised of chicken and mozzarella sandwiches, pumpkin bread and a strawberry-spinach salad.
Teachers also touched on advanced placement exams, the Montana Digital Academy and dual enrollment courses. One teacher asked the university to examine its dual enrollment offerings, saying the courses don’t always equate to college credits.
Engstrom said UM would look into the issue. He also credited teachers for students’ improving academic success and taking advantage of university programs geared to high school students.
“Students who complete digital academy courses succeed at equal or better rates than students who didn’t,” Engstrom said. “It’s been a tremendous success story. Virtually every school district in the state participates.”