LAME DEER — After a year of attacking the problem from all sides, administrators, teachers and state specialists are cautiously optimistic that efforts to turn around one of Montana’s lowest-performing schools are working.
But the changes at Lame Deer High, an isolated reservation school with 135 students, haven’t come without resistance that has taken time to overcome.
Lame Deer is one of five high schools in the lowest 5 percent of the state’s Title I schools in academic proficiency. All five are on Indian reservations.
In Title I schools, 40 percent or more of the students come from families who qualify under the U.S. Census’ definition of low income.
In 2010, Lame Deer and three of the other high schools — Frazer High in northeast Montana, Lodge Grass High and Plenty Coups High — joined the State Office of Public Instruction’s Schools of Promise initiative, as did Pryor Elementary and Pryor 7-8. The fifth high school, Hays-Lodge Pole, declined to take part.
The state agency secured an $11.5 million, three-year Title I school improvement grant from the U.S. Department of Education. To participate, the districts had to work with the OPI on changes to help students achieve better test results. That included relinquishing autonomy and allowing the OPI specialists to work with district administrators, teachers, school boards and the community.
If the proof is in the pudding, the high schools got sweet news this summer, when they saw improvement in the annual state tests that measure how well 10th-graders are doing in math, reading and science.
All four schools increased their average scores in math, science and reading. Frazer and Pryor had the largest test score increases — 15 points higher both in math and reading.
“We improved our reading scores in the 10th grade by 24 percent,” Lame Deer High Principal Frank No Runner said. “We became 50 percent proficient in reading, and we’re moving our kids from the novice level to nearing proficiency at an increased rate.”
If three students who took the test had each gotten one more question right, No Runner said, it would have put the high school reading level at 71 percent proficiency.
“Those are numbers that not long ago were out of reach, but now those kinds of goals, we could reach them,” he said.
No Runner credits a new reading program and the dedication of the teachers to put it in place. In years past, No Runner said, students would be placed in a reading section for a semester before any changes were made. Now, teachers assess progress more frequently.
“If they improved, we move them to the next program, or if they don’t meet the benchmarks, then we provide some intervention and we help them,” No Runner said. “That’s the whole difference.”
As the schools enter their second year of the grant, there have been some changes. Lodge Grass High is no longer part of the program.
“Looking back at the data, the work of people on site, there were too many obstacles that we had to overcome to get the work done,” said Denise Juneau, the state superintendent of schools. “OPI is accountable for meeting federal requirements of the grant and, after that first year, we couldn’t justify spending any more of the money there.”
In a letter to the district, Juneau said progress had been limited by the failure to implement the new curriculum “with strong fidelity,” as well as “lack of cooperation and commitment from all stakeholders, and failure to work cooperatively with OPI staff.”
Calls to Lodge Grass Public Schools Superintendent Victoria Falls Down weren’t returned.
The state secured an additional $1.3 million federal school improvement grant for the 2011-12 school year and will work with schools that feed into the Schools of Promise — Lame Deer K-6 and Lame Deer 7-8, Frazer K-6 and 7-8, Ashland K-6 and 7-8 and Wyola Elementary and Wyola Middle School.
OPI-hired experts who were in the high schools this past year will expand their work to the feeder schools, Juneau said.
Those specialists include a transformation leader, an instructional and curriculum leader, a community liaison and a school board coach. The community liaison and the school board coach are unique to Montana’s transformation model, Juneau said.
“Those became critical pieces of the model that we’ve created here,” she said. “And those connections with the community have become very important.”
In the first year of Schools of Promise, a new curriculum was put into place in math and language arts. Staff development also focused on those two areas, said Mandy Smoker Broaddus, the OPI’s school transformation director.
No Runner said his No. 1 goal this second year is to build trust with his staff and give its members the support they need to succeed. His second goal is to connect with families.
No Runner, who grew up on the Blackfeet Reservation in northwest Montana, was a teacher at Lame Deer High for five years before being named assistant principal at the high school. He is in his second year as principal.
He ticked off the reasons Lame Deer has wrestled with poor academic performance: spotty student attendance, high teacher turnover and a revolving door of principals.
“So there was no stability,” he said.
Instability can breed uncertainty, and that can lead to insecurity. That was evident as new people and programs came into the school last year, No Runner said.
“I would almost say it was unorganized and chaotic because of unanswered questions of the implementation of the grant,” he said.
Community liaison Robert Simpson, hired by the OPI last October, said he ran into resistance from the start.
“I felt sort of awkward coming in here because everybody was mad at me,” he said. “They didn’t understand the program and they thought we were here to bully them around.”
Both Simpson and No Runner say things have improved in this second year of the grant.
“There’s a real positive change in the school,” Simpson said. “They just kind of got on board.”
Smoker Broaddus said the first year was a learning curve for the schools and the OPI. This year, Smoker Broaddus is the point person for Schools of Promise. She wants to fine-tune collaboration between the state office and the schools.
“One of our major lessons learned is communication is key,” she said. “We’ve committed ourselves to doing a better job.”
Simpson, a lifelong resident of Lame Deer and enrolled member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, said that at a low-functioning school, there can be a lot of finger-pointing between those in the district and those with children in the schools.
“My job is to build that bridge between the community and the school, which wasn’t there before,” he said. “Before, there was nothing here at the school that involved the community. So we’re trying to bring the community into the school more.”
Last year, that meant creating such events as a masquerade powwow and a round dance at the Boys and Girls Club that drew hundreds of people.
He also intends to step up a program the OPI introduced last year to bring to bring teachers into students’ homes. It’s too easy, he said, for parents to view teachers as aloof and for teachers to think that parents don’t care about their children’s school progress.
“We just go there and we ask parents about their hopes and dreams for their kids, and how we can help them with that,” Simpson said. “And we don’t take paperwork with us. We just go there, have a cup of coffee, and visit about their kid.”
A parent lounge has been added at the school, where transformation leader John Bole said parents follow their students’ academic progress, check on their attendance and visit teachers.
“That’s a big piece of the long-term goal, reminding our parents that this is their school,” he said.
During school, each teacher meets with a small group of students every day, Bole said. The goal is to “build an environment of relationship” during a period of day that has nothing to do with academics. The advisory groups stay together all four years.
Students are also giving their input. They proposed that a student lounge be built that would only be open to students with a 3.0 GPA, an idea that is becoming reality, Bole said.
Bole began his job in January. Much of his work has been to work with the administrators on leading school and strengthening the school’s mission and vision.
He and the instructional leaders also work with the teachers to boost their skills and tweak their class plans. A second instructional coach was added this year.
“Last year we often had to invite ourselves into the classroom,” he said. “This year we’re being invited in. It’s a huge shift.”
Bole thinks one reason for the change was the improvement in student test scores. Another is that the teachers realized the OPI was there to help students.
“When you can see that the target is the best interest of the kids, you begin to break down the barriers that are there,” he said.
Attendance also has been a focus, Bole said, “because you can’t learn if you’re not here.” This school year, attendance is up about 5 percentage points, from 82 to 87 percent, No Runner said.
Over the summer, Bole worked with No Runner, teacher Ken Sattler and instructional coach Angie Collins on a summer school course oriented toward technology. Twenty-two students enrolled and 21 finished, with attendance most days at 22.
“The kids can be challenged to such a degree that they take on themselves the responsibility to be here, which was a real eye-opener,” Bole said.
Schools of Promise has brought in bringing in technology and computer equipment that the school couldn’t otherwise afford.
“The students are able to be more hands-on and actively engaged in learning,” Lame Deer Superintendent Bryan Kott said.
Math teacher Deanna Williams said she likes the way the new software draws her students into learning. If she’s worried, it’s that the school has three years to improve its test scores, and she fears that the new math curriculum may not include everything 10th-grade students need to know to do that.
Work to be done
In late spring, Kott brought in the Colorado-based Discovery Program. It teaches adults how to help students develop appropriate problem-solving skills and the ability to face challenges and conflict, at school and in the community. It also underlines that as teachers take responsibility for kids inside and outside the classroom, it can change the mood of the school, he said.
Teacher Susan Wolfe said she has seen a difference among students this fall.
“The hallways last year were so rough. Kids were shoving and kicking,” she said. “Now you hardly hear any sound at all in the halls. It’s just remarkable.”
With the first year of the school improvement grant finished and the second one begun, Lame Deer and the other Schools of Promise have less than two years left to finish the work of boosting student achievement. Bole, who has been in education for about 35 years, said his goal is to work himself out of a job.
“We don’t want it to be a program that we do for three years and when we walk out the door, it’s history,” he said. “So a lot of our effort is put into trying to discern how we support but not supplant the faculty and the administration and the community.”
That’s not always easy, Bole said.
“But it’s vital to the long-term success of what we’re looking at.”