Successful Students

The Montana Way

There are high schools on American Indian reservations in Montana where far more kids can’t pass a basic reading test than can. We’re talking proficiency rates of 13, 14 and 15 percent overall, according to state data

So why are teachers excited here?

Because they know they’re going to transform their schools.

In July, Montana’s Office of Public Instruction won $11.5 million in federal School Improvement Grants to improve instruction at four persistently low-achieving high schools. Their award was based on applications jointly written by school and union officials in the four districts: Lame Deer, Lodge Grass, Frazer and Plenty Coups.

Connie Sell, president of the Lame Deer Education Association, was part of the grant-writing team – “so much brainstorming!” she said. It was an exciting process: Charts all over the walls and dozens of educators finding common direction. In the end, what they came up was a plan to create “Schools of Promise,” with new curriculum at each of the schools and new mentors and supports for teachers.

“High school teachers are thrilled with the curriculum,” Sell said.

It helped that Sell and other union officials already had a cooperative relationship with Montana’s state Superintendent Denise Juneau. “She came to us and said, ‘You have to buy in. If we don’t do it the Montana-way, they’re going to come in and do it federal-style,’” Sell recalls. “You see these other districts in the country where teachers are getting fired. We want to do it the way we treat each other in Montana.”

It’s also important that Juneau has acknowledged that any improvement plan need to acknowledge the social challenges faced by students, and include services for their mental and physical health. “It’s not normal for students to go to 12 funerals a year,” she told The Buffalo Post. “It’s not normal for a student to sit there contemplating suicide.”

Poverty makes teaching much more difficult, as does the constant rotating door of administrators, Sell said. “People come from outside the community, and they don’t stay,” she said. “When you have no leadership at the top, it’s hard for a building to do what it wants to do.”

New principals aim to stay, she said. And teachers aim to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the grant to become even better at their jobs. This year, in Lame Deer, a dozen teachers are going for full National Board Certification and another 10 are taking the first steps.

“We really want to make this work. We are so sick of people saying, ‘Oh, you work at Lame Deer? You know they think we’re rocks.”

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