Wolf Point Montana Kids
Courtesy Montana Office of Public Instruction
Elementary students at the Graduation Matters Wolf Point kickoff.

Montana Steps Up for Native Students, Future Leaders

Tanya H. Lee

While school boards and politicians in some states say they cannot understand why a high school U.S. history course would have anything to say about events that occurred before the arrival of Europeans, the State of Montana has taken a completely different tack in regard to its 12 American Indian tribes.

The state’s Office of Public Instruction has initiated efforts in its K-12 classrooms specifically relevant to the tribes—including the Indian Education for All program, the Schools of Promise initiative and the hiring of two full-time specialists whose job it is to help teachers working on closing the achievement gap. The Montana State Legislature supports tribal colleges by providing funding for non-tribal students attending those schools.

Indian Education for All is exactly what its name implies. All students in Montana public schools learn about the history and contemporary lives of the tribes living in the state. The state’s approach to developing curriculum for IEFA exemplifies its commitment to providing accurate and authentic information about the tribes.

OPI State Superintendent Denise Juneau, Mandan and Hidatsa Tribes, explains, “In 2009 our legislature provided $2 million to be divided among the tribal governments in our state to develop their own tribal histories.” The tribes alone were responsible for determining what story they wanted to tell and how that story would look.

“Some tribes created DVDs, some created textbook-like materials, some had a poster series that went along with a curriculum. We took those products and created tribal history documents, curriculum and timelines that brought it all together,” says Juneau.

Every lesson and piece of research created by OPI is funneled through the Montana Advisory Council on Indian Education, whose members are designees appointed by the tribal governments, and must be approved by the council members and their respective governments.

Teacher development has been critical to making IEFA work. OPI “supports educators on their journey to becoming more culturally proficient so they feel able to implement IEFA in their classrooms,” says Mandy Smoker Broaddus, Fort Peck Assiniboine & Sioux, director of Indian education at OPI.

Mandy Smoker Broaddus, director of Indian Education at the Montana Office of Public Instruction. (Courtesy Montana Office of Public Instruction)

The American Indian population in Montana is about 7 percent, but 11 to 12 percent of Montana’s public school students are American Indian/Alaska Native, while 98 percent of the teaching force is white. Nonetheless, professional development for teachers in IEFA topics has been hugely effective. “We took those teachers who were interested in working on this effort and trained them,” Juneau says. “We needed to give them a lot of information that had been lacking in their own educational experience. Once they caught the bug of Indian education and what it meant and filled the gaps in their own knowledge, they were the ones who really moved IEFA forward.”

Juneau continues, “We now have three different tiers of professional development—teachers learning basic facts; teachers developing and sharing lesson plans and resources; and a small group of master IEFA teachers, who are presenting on IEFA at conferences.”

In 2014, IEFA cost $20.40 per student plus $134,000 in discretionary grants to some school districts, according to Madalyn Quinlan, chief of staff at the Office of Public Instruction.

“Is the program working?” ICTMN asked Broaddus. “That’s the million-dollar question,” she says. “We do know that our graduation rates for [American Indian] students have increased slowly over time. We have no way to tie that directly to IEFA, but I firmly believe that if students are in school environments where their history and culture and identity are respected, then that increases the likelihood of their staying in school and graduating.”

Montana Office of Public Instruction State Superintendent Denise Juneau celebrates graduating Native American students at a special ceremony in Helena. Montana’s overall graduation rate has increased from 80.7 percent in 2009 to 85.4 percent in 2014. (Courtesy Montana Office of Public Instruction)

Montana is also committed to closing the achievement gap. Any school that has an American Indian student gets an additional $200 per student per year and OPI also gets state-level funding aimed at that goal. OPI has two full-time specialists dedicated to helping teachers help Native students. One person focuses on academics and gives workshops for teachers; the other is focused more on the whole child and works with teachers on student engagement, student leadership, student wellness and other issues, says Broaddus.

The OPI’s Schools of Promise initiative is a partnership between schools, communities and the office to improve Montana’s persistently lowest achieving schools. The initiative serves schools on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, Northern Cheyenne Reservation and Crow Indian Reservation.

In an effort to support tribal colleges and increase opportunities for all Montanans, the state has for the past several years partially funded non-tribal students at tribal colleges. A bill to increase that funding has fought its way through the state legislature this year, says Laura John, Seneca/Blackfeet, state-tribal policy analyst at the Montana Budget Policy Center. She says she expects the current version, which funds students at a maximum of $3,280 per student per year, an 8 percent increase over the funding level for the past several years, to be approved shortly.

Montana Office of Public Instruction State Superintendent Denise Juneau at the Graduation Matters Wolf Point kickoff. Since the program was instituted, Montana’s high school dropout rate has decreased from 5.0 percent in 2009 to 3.6 percent in 2014, and the graduation rate has increased from 80.7 percent in 2009 to 85.4 percent in 2014. (Courtesy Montana Office of Public Instruction)

RELATED: Montana Values Tribal Colleges—And May Back Them with Money

Montana’s commitment to integrating information about American Indians has extended to modifying Common Core standards. “One of the things that makes our state pretty significant is that we have modified Common Core standards to incorporate American Indian content throughout,” Broaddus says.

IEFA is not just for American Indian children. It’s about creating the next generation of national, state and local leaders and citizens. “Our leaders need to have a truthful history of both our country and our state to really be able to lead,” Broaddus says. “I think about the type of leaders our kindergarteners and first graders are going to be when they graduate. They’re going to be able to create policies that move our state together knowing that everybody in this state, no matter their background, really lends to the fabric of our community and that we all look out for each other.”

The OPI is eager to share curriculum and resources. All of Montana’s materials related to IEFA—lessons, units, history, Common Core adaptations—are available to anyone who wants to use them. “We have numerous resources and lesson plans on our website,” says Broaddus. “They are all available for download for free for anybody. And educators can call us with questions and ideas.”

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