Changes coming for low-performing reservation schools

2010-08-13T18:37:00Z Changes coming for low-performing reservation schoolsSUSAN OLP Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
August 13, 2010 6:37 pm  • 

Veteran educator David Stringfield has spent the past two years coaching the staff at two of the lowest performing schools in Montana.

Hired part-time by the Montana Office of Public Instruction, Stringfield has worked with teachers and administrators in Lodge Grass and Pryor. He helped them develop goals and action plans, and then to put them into practice.

But with only a few hours a week to do the work, he’s been limited in what he could accomplish. This year, that will change.

With the $11.5 million Title I school improvement grant the OPI secured from the U.S. Department of Education, the agency has formed partnerships with the state’s most challenged schools. Rather than parceling the money among the schools, OPI has hired education experts, like Stringfield, who will work full-time with the schools the next three years to turn things around.

To participate in the Montana Schools of Promise program, the schools had to agree to partner with OPI in making changes to help struggling students achieve better results. That has meant relinquishing a certain amount of autonomy.

The schools in the program include Pryor Elementary, Pryor 7-8, Plenty Coups High, Lame Deer High, Frazer High and Lodge Grass High. All are on Indian reservations and all fall into the lowest 5 percent of the state’s Title I schools in academic proficiency.

Through Schools of Promise, 16 people will work in the districts in four distinct roles, as transformational leaders, community liaisons, instructional and curriculum leaders and school board coaches. In addition, Don Wetzel Jr. will serve as the statewide youth and community outreach coordinator.

The mentors will work with everyone involved in education and beyond. That includes students, teachers and administrators, parents and community members, tribal leaders and elders.

The goal, said Denise Juneau, state superintendent, is to bring the community together to ensure that every student has the opportunity for a quality education and the chance to succeed.

“We are going to have a full-court press with a full-time staff that’s organized, that’s energized and ready to move the system this fall,” she said.

After the Schools of Promise teams were formed, they met to begin developing district action plans, Juneau said. One immediate change is the adoption of new math and English curriculums that will be common to the four high schools.

Teachers trained during the summer so they’ll be ready to teach the new coursework. Because all the schools now have a common curriculum, they will be part of a professional learning community where they can find support, Juneau said.

And with the idea that it takes a village to raise a child, the new coaches won’t just work with students and teachers. They’ll also work with school boards, parents and the community.

It’s crucial to the success of the program, Juneau said.

“At the end of the day, in three years at the end of the grant, we’re out of money,” she said. “What stays in place has to be the students, the teachers, the parents and the community.”

Juneau plans to visit all of the schools in the Schools of Promise program on the first day or the first week of school.

“It is very exciting,” she said. “We’re realists and we know there are plenty of challenges. But we’ve put together a great staff that I trust and that have great ideas.”

Wetzel, the new community outreach coordinator, is no stranger to the communities where he will work with students and the community. Part of his most recent job with the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council was as director of Planting Seeds of Hope, a suicide prevention and youth empowerment program.

He’ll get input from students in all of the schools and support their ideas. That’s where empowerment starts, Wetzel said.

His immediate focus will be to take part in the community meetings where Schools of Promise will be introduced. The first gathering is in Frazer on Tuesday. 

For real change to happen, Wetzel said, the community will have to buy into it. But he knows one thing about Native communities.

“People will rally around the youth on reservations,” he said.

He points to the support that tribal towns give their high school basketball teams at tournament time. Wetzel would like to channel that same energy into education.

“Basketball is the tie that you see brings the tribe together, the pride and the strength, and that resiliency is shown most during tournaments,” he said. “Now let’s try to do that academically.”

Stringfield, a Montana educator, has worked mostly in the elementary grades. He spent 20 years as a teacher or principal at West Glacier Elementary in Bozeman and at Yellowstone National Park Elementary in Mammoth.

He’s also working on a doctorate in math education at Montana State University. For the past two years he has worked with OPI.

As a transformational leader this year, Stringfield will spend some time researching methods that have been successful in similar districts elsewhere in the country. Then he will lend his technical assistance to the Pryor schools as they make changes.

Part of his job will be making sure the changes stick. Monitoring results will also being crucial in making sure the reforms are working.

Stringfield is optimistic just from the changes he’s seen this summer, under the leadership of new Pryor Superintendent Jeff Walker.

“He’s come in and made some promising changes to make the district look different and feel different as an organization,” Stringfield said.

Stringfield has a personal goal in his new position, that in three years he won’t be needed in the Pryor schools.

“It would be really nice if I worked myself out of a job,” he said. “I’m trying to empower them to make changes is the system for ongoing sustainable improvement.”

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