‘Graduation Matters’ should apply to all students

This editorial was originally published in the Yellowstone County News issue January 30, 2015.


Editorial By Evelyn Pyburn

“Graduation Matters.”

Does it? When does it matter?

Does it only matter for certain students? Does it still matter even when one district stands to lose money to another? Or, does not being part of the “right neighborhood” justify sacrificing the futures for some kids over others?

Does it make sense that a community of some 8,000 people might have its own high school?

Most high schools in Montana serve communities of far less population, and yet it is that educators and administrators from large AA schools stood unabashedly opposed, last week, to allowing satellite communities to make their own decisions about whether they want a high school, primarily because the AAs don’t want to lose the funding from those “outside” students.

Not once did those school officials address the very alarming concern from Lockwood representatives that 25 percent of students attending Billings high schools do not graduate. I cannot fathom how anyone signing onto the Graduation Matters initiative, anywhere in Yellowstone County, would not support a bill that would allow Lockwood the choice of having a high school, which could make a huge difference in that dropout rate.

If uneducated youth are a problem to all of society, then that society includes the City of Billings and all other communities in the region. It’s not just a Lockwood problem.

During testimony in the state Legislature, on a bill that would allow communities in Montana to make their own decision about having a high school, AA school officials focused primarily on the lost revenue. They pointed out that they may not be able to offer students as many programs. And, surely it is true that the higher level of revenues might help add to curriculums, but that’s only beneficial if students participate in those programs. A consistent concern from speakers in favor of the bill was that students from the outside communities, like Lockwood, could not participate because they did not have the transportation necessary for after-school activities.

(Not to mention that students don’t like riding school buses. I rode a bus to school at one point and I didn’t like it. Adults wouldn’t like it, so why do they think children should?)

There were AA school students who testified about how wonderful all those programs were, but not one of them was from a satellite community. In fact, quite the opposite. Lockwood students talked about how difficult it was to participate in high schools that were not in their community. Lockwood teachers talked about how they had former students who were attending high school, who came back to them for assistance because they could not get the support they needed in the high schools.

Some speakers, in a most bizarre twist of reasoning, suggested that if residents of communities like Lockwood were allowed to vote to choose to have their own high school, voters in the larger school district should also be allowed to vote on the issue.  Not to do so would violate their rights, they claimed. Some said the outlying students “should be willing to sacrifice,” but apparently those in AA schools shouldn’t be asked to sacrifice the revenues which really belong to the outlying communities.

And, it was also suggested that a Class A school (which Lockwood with some 500-plus students would be) wouldn’t be able to offer as good an education. Is that a concern about all Class A schools in Montana?

I have never heard anyone say anything but positive things about how the Lockwood School District serves elementary and middle school students. It is considered one of the top schools in the state. I suspect they would run a high school just as well, but wait, there’s more…

The fact is, there is a mountain of evidence, and scientific research continues to pile up more evidence, that students actually do better in smaller high schools, precisely because of issues of participation and disenfranchisement.

I have heard Billings parents complain about that as a problem for their own children. Maybe these numbers from Montana’s Office of Public Instruction reveal the reason for their concern. In 2013-14, Billings Public Schools with total enrollment of 5,144 reported 3,646 participants in activities. That averages .71 activities per student. Compare that to a Class A School – Laurel – which with fewer activities offered, and with an enrollment of 649 students, had 783 participants – or 1.21 activities per student.

Having attended smaller schools and having had my own kids attend smaller schools, I fully understand the reason for this variance. You are never a number in a small school. Everyone knows you. And for the school to do anything, they need every student participating several times over. That not only keeps a kid involved, they know they are seen. They know they are relevant. They know they play a role and can contribute. If they miss a day – everyone will miss them.

“Bigger is not necessarily better” when it comes to education. Economies of scale do not factor into the psyches of children.

To be part of a community, in which they are known and recognized, turns out to be just as relevant, if not more so, to children as it is to adults. To be a number is simply not conducive to educating, to inspiring goals or instilling confidence. So, if good education is the goal, then maybe AA schools are the ones failing and they should be downsized.

And, this is coming from someone who very much believes in being fiscally prudent. But fiscal concerns should only go so far as they accomplish their goal. When students quit school the goal seems to have been lost.

If School District 2 wants to retain its grip on Lockwood, it has had ample opportunity to do so.

The reality is that Lockwood has been pushed to this legislative quest as a last resort, due in large part to the indifference of School District 2 to address Lockwood issues.

School District 2 could have built a high school in Lockwood, long ago. Lockwood concerns have been consistently rejected, out-of-hand, by SD2 administrators for years, and it is nowhere mentioned in any long-term planning. More than one option has been proposed over the years by Lockwood people who long ago recognized that long distances from schools were having an adverse impact on their children. At one time there was really not that much interest in Lockwood for having its own high school district  – but having been ignored and shunted aside, Lockwood residents have become increasingly supportive.

That still does not mean that a majority would support the idea, but the Lockwood school board is right to contend that the decision should lie with Lockwood residents and not for SD2 or even the state to decide for them. What a high school would cost and whether Lockwood wants to take on the challenge would be an issue for a later date.  Right now, they just want to be able to make the choice.

Even though I don’t live in Lockwood, I can feel great anguish that “the system” is failing so many of the children in Lockwood, and I find myself rather indifferent to the claims of impoverishment from AA school officials.  Will they oppose the governor’s proposed pre-k program to expand public schools into day-care, because of concerns about cost?

I do not see how anyone who is truly concerned about education of all children in a community can stand in the way of this bill.

So, as our communities embrace the theory that “Graduation Matters” – let’s hope we really mean it.

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