Flying high

FHS wins national award for improved graduation rates
Deb Hill
Friday, November 19, 2021
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Fergus High has received national recognition, the result of showing the highest improvement in graduation rates of 143 high schools in Montana. News-Argus File Photo

Fergus High School is the winner of a national distinguished school award, based on having the highest increase in graduation rates of 143 Montana high schools.

According to Jack O’Conner, federal programs director for the Montana Office of Public Instruction, the award is based solely on the numbers submitted by the schools to OPI.

“It’s a straight data run,” O’Conner said. “We calculate the two-year average of graduation rates and see who is most improved. Every high school in the state is reviewed and there were 143 schools eligible for this award. Fergus was at the top.”

How they did it
Lewistown Superintendent of Schools Thom Peck said he was thrilled to receive the letter announcing the award.

“It’s huge,” Peck said of the honor. “Some years only one school in the state qualifies, or no schools at all.”

Peck said Fergus High School graduation rates went from 87% to 96% over the 2019-2021 school years.

“What makes it even more amazing is that one of those is the first year of COVID,” Peck said. “We were completely shut down from March through the last two weeks of May that year.”

Peck attributes the success to educators and students.

“It’s all on the staff and kids at the high school,” he said.

Fergus Principal Tim Majerus agrees.

“Kudos to our staff. They are the ones that every day work to reach the students. We’ve done a lot to try and create a school environment where they feel included,” Majerus said.

For example, in November students participate in a “My Voice” survey, with 75 questions on different components of the school environment. At the end of the year the Student Council is invited to let the faculty know what worked and what needs to be changed.

“We try to really put meaning to the student’s voices. When they feel heard, when they see that their input matters, they feel more ownership of their own education,” Majerus said.

The high school also uses advisory groups – 15 students with one faculty member – to create better rapport between students and staff.

“We have advisory period daily. It’s a time where students can get help, catch up, take a test they might otherwise miss due to activities. When COVID hit, we were totally shut down but because we had worked really hard to build rapport, when we had to go to online classes there was already a base to build from when we reached out to students we weren’t hearing from,” Majerus said.

With more ownership and more inclusion, Majerus said more students choose to stay in school to graduate.

Another program that has made a difference is HiSet, formerly known as the GED.

“The HiSet program gives an option for students where life got in the way but then the students turned things around. Maybe they are coming up short on credits but they have worked hard and want to graduate with their class. The HiSet allows them to get a diploma if they pass all five of the tests,” Majerus said. “The result is 3% more students per year graduate.”

Award includes cash prize
As a result of the award, Fergus High School will receive $20,000. A portion of that must be used to send at least four staff members, either virtually or in person, to the National ESEA [Elementary and Secondary Education Act] conference, which will be held in February of 2022 in New Orleans.

The rest of the money can be used for the “betterment of the school in educationally meaningful ways.”

Majerus said he has reached out to his staff for ideas.

“I’ve asked them to identify how we can use the money to best impact the student population as a whole,” Majerus said. “I don’t want to use it to buy a new projector or something. Because our success came from every single teacher, I want to spend this on something that will impact the whole school. Ideas are already starting to come in.”

To qualify for the award, the school had to have a Title 1 program and serve students in an area with a poverty rate of at least 40%.

Winifred named ESEA Distinguished School

Winifred School was also recognized recently, having been named a National ESEA Distinguished School by Montana Office of Public Instruction. They are among 100 schools throughout the country recognized for exceptional student achievement in 2021. The schools designated as such excel in one of three categories, including exceptional student performance and academic growth for two consecutive years; closing the achievement gap between student groups for two or more consecutive years; and excellence in serving special populations of students.