Graduation Matters program aimed at helping students earn diploma

Snow is falling, students are treading into C.M. Russell High School on Great Falls’ first snowfall.  One hundred twenty desks are scattered in the front of the school, each one covered with snow and a story of a dropout from the previous year.

Counselor Brenda Lowry knows all too well how important those desks are.

“We have significantly managed to lower the number of dropouts over the last few years,” she said.

Graduation Matters is a state-wide program run by United Way, and its goals are to make sure that everybody graduates and gets support.

“The numbers have gone down, but every year, we still deal with some numbers,” Lowry said.

“One or two is too many. It’s something we are faced with every year,” she said.

The number of dropouts has decreased about 50 percent over the last decade, but Lowry said she is still concerned.

“My concern level has remained pretty constant,” she said.

But Lowry admits that the people of Great Falls are working to solve the problem.

“Great Falls has come together to help everyone realize the importance of graduating,” Lowry said.

“We try to work around each student’s unique issues. We make them aware of their decisions.”

Principal Dick Kloppel also is supportive of Graduation Matters.

“There is no such thing as a throwaway kid,” Kloppel said. “C. M. Russell High School makes a focus to keep kids in school.”

The number of dropouts in the Great Falls School District drops significantly every year.

There were 52 dropouts in the 2009-2010 year, 38 in the 2010-2011 year, and 38 in the 2011-2012 year.

“We expect you to graduate,” Kloppel said. “We want kids to succeed.”

“The biggest impact is the shift in attitude,” he said. “We try to hook kids with ‘personal interest’ classes.”

Montana law states that students can drop out when they are 16 years old, but Kloppel said that parents, teachers, and the community try to keep that from happening.

A partnership between schools and the community is exactly what English teacher Scott Clapp said is one of Graduation Matters’ strengths.

“Schools can’t stand in isolation,” he said. “I think it’s good because it raises awareness in the community that says we need to care about graduation.”

Clapp said that at CMR the rate has always been consistently high.

“CMR always had a positive graduation rate,” he said. “Ultimately we want young people to succeed. If we can help them through Graduation Matters, that will be a good thing.”

In the end, Clapp acknowledges that Graduation Matters has been successful in helping students.

“Graduation Matters has positively impacted the district.”