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Gazette opinion: Why September matters to Billings students all year

October 10, 2016 GMT

The entire Rose Park Elementary student body took the pledge Friday afternoon. They joined McKinley and Newman students and about 15,000 other Montana public school kids who have promised to:

Graduate from high school. No matter what it takes, how long it takes, or how hard it gets. I can do this and I will not give up. I make this pledge to myself, my family, my friends and my community.

The students repeated those words to Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau who came to the school to congratulate kids on their efforts to attend every day, on time. Rose Park and other Billings public schools have teamed up with local businesses and United Way of Yellowstone County in Graduation Matters Billings, the local chapter of a statewide push to boost graduation rates. The idea originated in Missoula schools, and Juneau promoted its adoption statewide with grants from private donors. Billings is one of 58 communities that have started local Graduation Matters programs. Billings has seen some success, which Juneau recognized with a Graduation Matters award. But our community has much room for improvement to prevent dropouts.

That’s why Rose Park’s first all-school assembly Friday celebrated individuals and whole classrooms with the highest and most improved attendance.

It’s not easy to get every student to class every day in a district with 16,658 kids spread among 31 schools. Last spring, more than 6,600 Billings students had missed so many school days that they were statistically at risk for dropping out. The more absences, the greater the risk.

As Rose Park sixth-grader Eliana Truby explained at the assembly: “For every day you miss, more work piles up and it’s harder to catch up.”

Amity Malberg, of United Way, coordinates the effort in a position funded by Billings Clinic, First Interstate Bank and Foundation, The Billings Gazette, St. Vincent Healthcare and Underriner Motors. The Montana Office of Public Instruction supplies a coach to help the Graduation Matters Billings team. Businesses providing volunteers include: CTA Architects Engineers, Billings Clinic, Rocky Mountain College, SM Energy and United Way. Volunteers tutor and mentor students and helped canvass neighborhoods before school started to talk to parents about why attendance matters.

The value of starting the school year with good attendance has been confirmed by Baltimore Education Research Consortium, which found students who missed fewer than two days in September generally had good attendance year round. Half of students who missed 2-4 days in September wound up missing a month or more during the school year. Almost nine of 10 students who missed more than four days in September were chronically absent, missing more than a month of school during the year.

Graduation Matters Billings has adopted the slogan: The key is less than three. The students are encouraged to attend daily, and to try to avoid having more than three absences for the year.

Preliminary results at the Billings pilot schools are encouraging:

In September 2015, 27 Rose Park students had three or more tardies; this September, only three students were late three times.At Newman, the number of students with severe absenteeism dropped from 14 in September 2015 to one this September. Severe absenteeism is missing 20 percent of school days.At McKinley, 47 students missed more than four days of school in September 2015, compared with 38 students this year. McKinley serves a large number homeless students.

After the attendance rally, students went back to their classrooms with cereal bar treats and a pledge card to remind them of their graduation goal. As for the classrooms with best attendance, word was that the Slushy Bus may pay them a visit soon.