Fulfilling The Promise Of A Quality Education For All Montana Students

The Blackfeet Reservation, between Browning and Heart Butte.

Nestled along the eastern edge of Glacier National Park sits Heart Butte, Montana. The tiny community is situated in nearly the exact spot where miles of golden prairie suddenly meets the enormous peaks of Glacier.

This landscape will always be home to me. I grew up nearby in Browning. My dad used to take me lake fishing here, I still have friends and family who live and ranch in the area, and my dad is the former superintendent of Heart Butte Schools.

Fewer than 600 people live in Heart Butte, which is on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. The poverty rate is high. Jobs are sparse. But the town still has its own elementary, middle and high school, which is full of teachers and students who are working every day to make a difference in the world.

I was in Heart Butte this week to launch my Schools of Promise initiative. Heart Butte is the sixth community where the Montana Office of Public Instruction is deploying federal grant money in order to raise the achievement level of students, increase classroom rigor, and graduate more students prepared for the next steps in life.

There’s no doubt there are a lot of real challenges in Heart Butte. But when I meet students like Lilly Rose, I know there will be home-grown solutions to address the needs of the community.

Lilly Rose is why I do this work.

The curious first grader quickly attached herself to two of the reporters who had traveled to Heart Butte to learn more about the school. In no time she was learning how to use their microphones and cameras, asking questions, conducting interviews with me and members of my staff, and dreaming about becoming a journalist.

The girl is bright, inquisitive and brave. Lilly Rose, like all Montanans, deserves to attend a public school that challenges her and provides opportunities for exploring new ideas and interests.

Here’s my interview with Lily.

The schools on Montana’s Indian Reservations have historically been among the lowest-performing schools in the state. It’s not because teachers aren’t doing their jobs. Or students aren’t interested in learning. Often times these students are living with challenges unique to where they live. These are students living in communities with poverty that is deep, isolated, concentrated and generational.

Teachers in these communities have especially tough jobs when many of their students can’t focus on reading and math because they’re too concerned about where their next meal will come from.

Heart Butte is already taking big strides toward addressing the academic and health needs of its students. Thanks to additional grant funding, the school now offers breakfast, lunch and dinner to all of its students, plus invites community members to eat at a low cost.

I spent some time with Heart Butte’s volleyball team. These young women will be tough to beat!

School leaders have already taken steps toward making the school a more welcoming place for parents and community members by brightening up the entryway and adding murals to the building.

For the next three years, my office will spend about $1.4 million in Heart Butte to continue the work of raising the bar for students, parents, teachers and community leaders.

All of us have a role in making Montana’s public schools the best they can be. I’m not going to stand by and let a generation fail. That’s why I work so hard to make sure our public education system fulfills the promise of helping every student turn their dream into a reality.