FULL REPORT — Graduating high school unprepared – the reality for many students in Montana despite record high graduation numbers as they get ready to embark on their education journey.

High School Curriculum  

High school is similar across The Treasure State; from math to social studies to science, each class has its importance and value to students.

“Every day we’re pushing kids, you know, get your education, we show them, the pros and cons of having an education to whereas not having one,” explained Karleen White Grass, special education teacher’s assistant at Browning High.

Story continues below

In 2015, Montana’s overall graduation rate rose to 86 percent, four points above the national average.

Outgoing Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau has made a major push to increase high school graduation during her tenure.

“Record high graduation rates for two years running,” Juneau said.

Everyone agrees, graduating from high school sets up a brighter future.

“You need your education to go forward in life,” stated Browning High Senior Shanese Duck Chief.

But getting a high school diploma is just part of the equation.

Browning High School Pre-College Adviser Joe Jessepe, says students may not be prepared to take that next step.

“Out of the last 50 students that took an AP, or advanced placement, class maybe only one has passed it,” explained Jessepe.

Juneau and the Office of Public Instruction set the state standards for high school graduation, but each district is allowed to set stricter standards.

“The bar is set high at the state level and now it’s up the school districts duty and obligation to make sure students are reaching that bar,” explained Juneau.

Shanese says she’s concerned her school is not equipping her with the tools to succeed in higher education, “The school curriculum here is kind of lacking a majority of things.”

Despite following the state set guideline, “It doesn’t really prepare me,” said Duck Chief.

According to Jessepe, the obstacles start early for Browning students.

“Incoming freshmen, I would guess, are below proficient.”

The battle to achieve benchmarks and hit standards for American Indian students is seen throughout their entire educational career.

“You would get to proficient, probably on an average, like at the end of their sophomore, beginning of their junior year,” Jessepe explained.

Standardized Test Scores

ACT college readiness scores give students a 50 percent chance of getting a B or higher in the corresponding collegiate course. The standard is a composite score of 22.

For the 2015-16 school year, Montana students performed below the standard.

“Evidently they’re just not given enough prep in subjects like math,” stated Jessepe.

Even with programs implemented by OPI  like Graduation Matters and Schools of Promise focusing on helping students in Indian Country, there’s still a significant achievement gap.

According to the Montana American Indian Student Data Report, the achievement gap between American Indian and Caucasian students in 2016 is a difference of 34 percent for the Criterion-Referenced Test (CRT).

College Readiness

The admission requirements for four year Montana University System schools are three years for math and social studies. But the high school standard in the state is just two years in those subjects.

“There’s some responsibility on the student, when they want to go to college, to make sure that they are prepared,” said Juneau.

Deputy Commissioner for Academic and Student Affairs at the Montana University System John Cech echoes Juneau in this regard.

“I believe the parents of the students, encouraging the students, for example, for math, encouraging them to take four years of math; not three years, not two years, take four years of math.”

But for some of Montana’s American Indian students, that parental support system isn’t there.

“You don’t get the support from grandparents and great grandparents telling their children and grandchildren ‘go be a part of the system which was so bad to me’ and you wouldn’t expect them to do that,” explained Jessepe.

He stresses that this is a deep rooted cultural issue that circles back to education.

“Indians that are still alive today that were shamed about their own culture another own language and I think that caused a general bitterness or resentment about non-Indian education systems.”

Kaitlyn Sharp is a senior at Browning High School. She is trying to buck the trend by using deep rooted family traditions to help.

“I think education should be a big push to students because it’s a way to get out of here, away from the reservation,” said Sharp.

Sharp’s grandmother has a master’s degree in elementary education, and her mother has a bachelor’s in elementary education.

“I am going to go into pharmacy. I got accepted to the University of Montana just like two weeks ago,” Sharp said excitedly.

She says her family has always pushed her to thrive in school and be prepared for college.

“I just want a really great future for myself,” said Sharp. “It’ll set an example for the younger generation and it’ll just help my community.”

College Performance

In fall 2015, 36 percent of Montana high school graduates enrolled in a Montana University System school.

Out of those enrolled, “Twenty six percent enrolled in at least one developmental class,” explained Deputy Commissioner for Academic and Student Affairs at the Montana University System John Cech.

Developmental, or remedial classes, are extra classes in math or writing to get students up to the collegiate level. Remedial classes do not count toward earning a degree.

In 2015, 40 percent of American Indian students enrolled in a remedial math class.

“Students who were placed in one or more remedial math courses, have really a less than ten percent chance of ever completing a degree,” said Cech.

For fall 2014, 4.8 percent of the student population at all MUS schools were American Indian students. Only 4.1 percent of those American Indian students completed a degree.

The Future

Browning is taking steps at the high school level to make sure students have the tools to succeed.

In 2018, the required amount of math classes will double from two year, to four.

“To get out of that [poor education cycle], I guess we need to educate ourselves,” Jessepe said optimistically.

It is a way of changing the system and creating a more positive, supportive environment for generations to come.

The MUS is in the process of creating a program designed to target students sooner; getting them to think about college earlier in their educational career. The statewide pathways from high school to college will be in healthcare, information technology and advanced manufacturing areas.

“Working with increasing awareness, not only at the student level, but at the parent level,” explained Cech, in regards to helping students with college readiness.

Montana will also move toward a ‘co-requisite’ design across the board in 2018. Some schools already have these systems in place, like Helena College and Miles Community College, and Cech says other states that have implemented a co-requisite design have seen dramatic improvements.

“Tennessee for example, was able to increase their success rate from 12 percent to 58 percent for the students who needed help in math,” Cech explained.

Cech explained that Montana is a finalist for a national grant through the JP Morgan Chase Foundation to help students succeed in higher education. The grant would help build new dual credit opportunities, create work based learning opportunities for high schools students and will focus strongly in rural and tribal partners.

However, if Montana does not get the grant from JP Morgan, MUS has already committed $500,000 in program funds.

“We’re going forward with this program regardless if we get the grand or not,” explained Cech. “If we do get it, that money will just help us expand and reach more students.”

Reporter: Mikenzie Frost