‘Montana’s ‘Schools of Promise’: Inside the Fight to Turn Around America’s Remote Native American Classrooms’

This piece was originally published by the 74 Million on Nov. 22, 2015.

A reporter with the education website the74million.org recently visited Montana to learn more about Superintendent Denise Juneau’s Schools of Promise initiative. The piece opens with a stark reminder of just how rural and isolated many of Montana’s schools really are.

It’s hard to explain just how isolated this town in the far northwest reaches of the Montana plains really is.

On the trip there, three-and-a-half hours from the capital of Helena, cell service and radio reception come and go. The road – speed limit 80 mph – winds for miles past vast plains, scattered farms and just one town big enough to have a gas station. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a statue rises of two Native American warriors welcoming drivers to the Blackfeet Nation.

The same monument of the two riders — its base made of stones from a circa 1800s tribal mission and its figures crafted from the parts of rusted cars destroyed in a devastating 1964 flood  — stands at each of the four main entrances to the 1.5 million-acre reservation.

From the southern gateway off Interstate 89, it’s another 19 miles to reach Heart Butte proper. The school sits on top of a hill overlooking the rest of town — a post office, an Indian Health Services outpost, a few dozen houses and three churches.  And that’s pretty much it.

The nearest town, Browning, is 30 miles away, a do-able commute until the brutally snowy winters more or less cut off access. Many families make monthly journeys of more than 100 miles each way to stock up on groceries at the Wal-Mart in Great Falls, the closest large city.

The article, which was also published by The Atlantic, takes an in-depth look at Montana’s newest School of Promise, Heart Butte.

Five years ago, state Superintendent of Public Education Denise Juneau — herself an enrolled member of the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes who grew up in Browning— started Schools of Promise. The program, Montana’s effort to improve its lowest-performing schools, is funded by the federal School Improvement Grant, which provides similar grants to help states with struggling schools across the country.

Heart Butte is the eighth school in the sixth community, all on reservations, that will get School of Promise assistance. For Heart Butte, that means $1.4 million over three years.

Montana’s achievement gap is between its white students and American Indian children, who, at 11 percent of the school-age population, are the state’s largest minority group.

American Indian children who live on reservations face a type of poverty not unlike that found in urban areas, Juneau said. It’s deep, generational, isolated, and concentrated.

“When you have those four components of poverty, anywhere in the country, you’re going to have schools that are struggling with academic achievement, just because of a lot of the challenges of their context,” she said in an interview in her office in Helena ahead of the visit to Heart Butte.

Unlike children in Baltimore or the Bronx or other areas where families have been impoverished for decades, though, children on reservations don’t have access to the services or educational options available to children in big cities.

The remoteness of Heart Butte and the other reservation schools necessitated a new turnaround model. Rather than implement some of the more dramatic measures used elsewhere — converting to charters or dismissing and re-hiring large numbers of staff— Juneau “Montana-ized” the School Improvement Grant model using a more collaborative approach.

The state doesn’t have a charter law, and staffing schools in these remote areas is already an issue, Juneau said. She and her staff, with representatives of the state teachers union in tow, visited the schools that fit the formula for assistance to make the case that they should become a School of Promise.

“Because it was a significant amount of dollars, we knew it had to be more of a partnership than just a granting of dollars,” Juneau said. The state has doled out a little more than $11.5 million on the effort since 2010, and will have spent about $14 million in total when the grants run out.

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