BILLINGS — Billings has some of the largest high schools in the state, per student population, but not every student who walks in the doors comes out with a high school diploma.
That was the case for 17-year-old Gavin Morrison, who dropped out of classes at Skyview High School his sophomore year.
"I went halfway through and then just stopped, which now I think I shouldn't have," Morrison said. "It was definitely almost for no reason, but I felt it wasn't for me."
A decision Morrison said his mother, Amanda Kaldor, didn't take lightly but understood.
"Gavin, in his elementary school days, it was kind of rough," Kaldor said. "He had severe ADHD and ODD and he just couldn't sit still, but he did pretty good. Then the summer before high school started he suffered a traumatic experience...and it gave him severe anxiety."
In struggling with school, Morrison isn't alone.
Throughout the last five years, between 200-260 students drop out of Billings high schools each year. With a total high school population of about 5,800 students, that puts Billings drop out rates right within the state average of a 3.75%, a number tracked by the Office of Public Instruction.
Not holding a high school diploma can have lasting economic impacts. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows workers who have a high school diploma earn 25% more than workers without one.
Morrison, who recently started work at Western Municipal Construction, is feeling the push from his new employers to get a diploma and has his own goals of going to college for diesel mechanics.
"Even after I stopped school, I still thought about it, going to college, and it's always been a thought," Morrison said.
Attracting students back to education after dropping out is an objective in which Billings School District 2 is expanding and investing, based on its success with a program called Project Engage.
“We realized that a lot of the students that had withdrawn and dropped out of school didn't know what their options were," said Gordon Klasna, executive director of secondary education with the Billings school district. "So we held a luncheon and we entitled that 'Project Engage' because we wanted to reengage those students back into their education.”
At the Project Engage luncheon, held back in November, Klasna said education professionals helped former students navigate options around adult education, Job Corps, Montana Youth Challenge, and more.
Klasna says the district's effort behind this will only grow as it lays plans for a new alternative high school, called Opportunity School, set to open in Billings in the Fall of 2024.
“In our first year, I'd love to have about a hundred kids," Klasna said.
Klasna said that would be not only students who have dropped out but also enrolled students who are becoming credit deficient and falling behind in the process of earning a diploma.
"If we could get them into the Opportunity School, I think that'd be a big benefit for them as well," Klasna said.
The Opportunity School is one of three school projects the district is hoping to fund through the state's new charter school allowance. Klasna says it would not require new construction, that it would be housed in the Lincoln Center or in another existing building in the district, and that he doesn't anticipate issues around staffing it.
"There should be no shame or embarrassment for someone who has withdrawn from school because of struggles they have. We welcome all students back," Klasna said. "We want to make sure that they are set up for the future. That's our goal as educators."
Morrison is on that path. He and a friend attended the Project Engage luncheon in November and he begins classes on Tuesday to get his HiSet (high school equivalency diploma)—putting his goal of going to college within reach.
"I can go to college with it, which that's one thing I want to do is go to college," Morrison said.
Kaldor, Morrison's mom, is very proud of her son.
“I hope that he achieves every goal he has, and I know he will," Kaldor said. "He's a smart kid. He's a good kid. And I think that he will go far in this world.”
More information about adult education in Billings can be found here: https://www.billingsschools.org/adult-education