The superintendent of public instruction distributed $203,000 worth of grants to 35 communities across the state on March 12 as part of the Graduation Matters Montana program. Superintendent Denise Juneau made the announcement at Flathead Valley Community College in Kalispell.
The program was established in 2010 and aims to encourage students to stay in school and eventually go to college. According to the Office of Public Instruction, Montana’s high school dropout rate was 5 percent in 2009, but dropped to 3.6 percent in 2013.
“The statewide graduation rate is moving in the right direction due to the hard work happening at the local level across Montana,” Juneau said. “Hundreds of students have had their lives changed as a result of focused attention by educators, families and community members to ensure young people in Montana have the opportunity to achieve their educational and career goals.”
Since the launch of Graduation Matters Montana, the statewide graduation rate has also risen, from 80.7 percent in 2009 to 84.4 percent in 2013. According to the state agency, 722 fewer students dropped out in 2013 than in 2009.
The program, which doled out 25 grants totaling $165,000 in 2013, helps local communities establish graduation incentive programs. Libby, Browning, Columbia Falls, Cut Bank, Kalispell, Hot Springs, Polson, Thompson Falls and Whitefish all received grants ranging from $3,500 to $10,000. According to Libby School District Graduation Matters coordinator April Rewerts, the community has set a goal of reducing the dropout rate and the percentage of students who are credit deficient to less than 1 percent by 2016 and increase the number of students who enroll in college after graduation by 18 percent. In order to achieve these goals, the school district has high school students participate in a college preparation week; spend a day at FVCC’s Lincoln County Campus; and serve as role models by reading to younger students.
“The most important part is having the community show its support to these students and their parents and that they see the Graduation Matters Montana posters around town,” Rewerts said. “They need to know that the community cares about them, that Libby cares about them.”
Juneau said what has made the program unique in Montana is that it’s controlled and led at the local, not state level.
“We seem to be very unique in that this is an effort from the ground up,” she said. “I haven’t seen anything like this elsewhere in the country.”
A majority of the funding for the 2014 grants came from the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation, which has donated $450,000 over three years for Graduation Matters initiatives. Other donations included $10,000 from State Farm Insurance, $20,000 from the Steele Reese Foundation, $20,000 from AT&T and $3,000 from the Going to the Sun Rally Foundation.
Jalonie Castillo, 17, talked about his experience at the Columbia Falls Learning Center, which is supported by the initiative. Castillo has participated in the program for three years and plans on graduating this spring.
“Without this program, I wouldn’t be where I’m at today because I needed that extra push,” he said.
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