Just six months removed from seriously contemplating dropping out of high school, Megan Mathews is on track to graduate early.
That might explain why officials in Montana's Office of Public Instruction tapped the Hamilton Alternative School senior to serve on a new student advisory board focused on helping the state improve its graduation rate.
Whatever the reason - Hamilton High School counselor Rod Meuchel and Alternative School teacher Alexis Wheat suggest it is Mathews' tendency to freely speak her independent mind - Mathews said she is honored to serve on the board.
"I think it's awesome," she said. "I didn't think I would ever be nominated for something like this."
Mathews and 39 other students from 30 schools across Montana got their first taste of weighing in on state education policy last week in Helena at the board's first meeting, part of OPI's "Graduation Matters Montana" initiative.
Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau said Graduation Matters is about seeking ways to increase the rate of students graduating from high school "college and career ready."
OPI also hopes to establish a strong support network between schools, businesses and community organizations in the effort to bolster student success and "create school-based and community-based opportunities to inspire students to stay in school and graduate."
Juneau said as a whole - after the typical icebreakers, a talk from the state superintendent and a PowerPoint presentation on dropout statistics for Montana and the nation - the students on the advisory board said they wanted schools to offer more flexibility in how they earned the credits needed to graduate.
"They talked about how many rules were in place and how they didn't allow them a lot of wiggle room," Juneau said. "Especially for the students who have lives outside of school."
Juneau said she hopes that efforts such as the Montana Digital Academy - a statewide Internet-based instructional opportunity that gives students a chance to take courses in subjects they might not otherwise have a chance to study - helps address that flexibility issue.
Juneau said the board's ability to agree on many of the factors that can derail students from graduation was impressive, particularly given that it is such a diverse group.
"Some of them will be valedictorian," Juneau said. "And some were dropped out and dropped back in. Some have dealt with very difficult circumstances to get through school. Some from very small schools; some from very big schools."
Mathews said she found it both invigorating and hopeful that Juneau was so hands on with the group.
"She was very interactive with it," Mathews said.
For her part, Mathews said she nearly came to the quitting point at the end of last school year because her issues with anxiety made it painful to attend the high school.
"The end of junior year is when it came down to me wanting to drop out," Mathews said. "I've always been unhappy with school and I was just very sick of everything. School was not something I wanted to be doing. ... I was just more discouraged because, I wasn't doing well and I think that's when dropping out came to mind."
While Mathews said she was flattered that she was chosen to serve on the OPI student board, she didn't fully get the grim picture on Montana's dropout problem until Friday, when Juneau presented the data.
For the 2008-09 school year Montana's public and private accredited schools reported that 2,423 students dropped out of grades 7 through 12, putting the percentage of students leaving at 3.6 percent. The number jumps when the data are confined to high school students, with a dropout rate of 5.1 percent.
Mathews said she was stunned to learn that the rate of students making it to high school graduation was declining in Montana, while national figures were improving.
Citing statistics that show 80 percent of men and 70 percent of women in the state's prison population are high school dropouts, Juneau said it is clear that work needs to be done.
OPI has a push on to introduce legislation in the 2011 Legislature that would toughen the state's approach to keeping students in school.
"Our current law hasn't changed since 1921," Juneau said.
But the effort to calibrate an integrated approach starts with discussions like the one held by students last week, Juneau said.
It's one thing for education experts to sit in panel discussions on graduation rates, and it's another thing to talk to those most affected by education policies, Juneau said.
"We rarely ask the students themselves how it's working," she added.
Mathews, who hopes to head off to Northern Idaho University to study pediatric trauma nursing, is glad they did.
"It was really exciting to know that kids have a voice in something important that is going on," she said. "That it's not just another teachers' meeting."
Reporter Sepp Jannotta can be reached at 363-3300 or email@example.com.