Second in a two-day series
LAME DEER — Lame Deer High School will open this fall with a big celebration to welcome its incarnation as one of Montana’s “Schools of Promise.” That much is certain.
“They’re telling us our first day is going to be different than any other first day,” said Connie Sell, president of the Lame Deer Education Association and a second- and third-grade teacher.
But how the transformation will be accomplished during the intervening three months, and what the school will look like in the end, are a little murky. Details are still in the works, including crucial questions of who will lead the school next year and who will be teaching what. The curriculum will be getting a makeover, too.
“The stress level here is really, really high,” acknowledges Jill Henzie, district curriculum director, who is enthusiastic about the opportunities she sees in Schools of Promise. “They don’t know who the principal is going to be. They don’t know who the superintendent is going to be or what their job assignments are going to be.”
Everyone usually knows where they are going to be and what they are going to be doing by the end of March ,said Veronica Small Eastman, high school principal. Eastman herself doesn’t know what her role in the district will be next fall, although she does have a signed contract.
She will no longer be principal. Under federal rules, all principals who had been in a participating school who have been in place longer than two years had to be dismissed.
Losing her job as principal came as a blow to the educator, who had taught at Lodge Grass High School for several years before coming to Lame Deer. In the five or six years before she came, Eastman said, there had been 10 principals — a turnover that likely contributed to the school’s dismal academic record.
During her years as principal, Eastman said, she had provided training and support for her staff and was bringing in programs to improve the school’s performance. She said she had built a cohesive leadership team with her two vice-principals.
“We were getting these things going,” she said. “It’s kind of like, why take me out now?”
The school board has not made a decision on who will be high school principal.
The board is also dealing with the job of superintendent for the district. Currently the position is filled by Bryan Kott, who started last year as the elementary school principal, but became interim superintendent in the fall when the previous superintendent resigned.
Kott has worked with the school board and the Montana Office of Public Instruction (OPI) on preparing the school for change. Experts are surveying the curriculum, assessing the training needs of the staff and defining the areas in most need of improvement, he said.
Staff will be involved over the summer, Kott said. All math and language arts teachers will be going to training. The grant includes funds to pay them for attending.
OPI and the school board are trying to address the alarm that spread across the Northern Cheyenne Reservation when the project got under way.
“Rumors spread to all four corners and they got bigger as they spread,” said Bertha Other Bull, school board chairman. “Rumors said they were going to fire all of us. That’s not it. They got it wrong.”
Kott said he even had to respond to rumors that OPI would be closing the school altogether.
“I think people are in fear that it’s going to be a punitive thing,” Henzie said. “But it’s not. It’s going to give us the resources and support we need.”
There are going to be high expectations and outside evaluators may be coming in to review faculty performance. But teachers will be given the tools they need to meet those expectations, she said. Teachers who do well will be rewarded and recognized.
Vice Principal Aundre Bell said he’d heard mixed reaction from the staff. Some think the project will make things better in the long term. Others believe OPI is just throwing a lot of money at the school and when it’s gone, everything will go back to where it was.
Bell said he is hopeful.
“It’s going to hold everybody more accountable,” he said. “We won’t be able to use the excuse that we’re an Indian school. We’re going to have people around with the answers and that’s what we need.”
Union leader Sell said the high school faculty may be more worried about the coming year than teachers in the elementary school because they haven’t had experience with comparable programs. The elementary school, however, received a Reading First grant a few years ago that offered similar help with training and in-school mentors.
“It’s wonderful to have someone come in and help,” she said. “We know because we’ve been through it and it really makes a difference. They are going to be here five days a week. That kind of commitment is phenomenal.”
She said the attitude from OPI is “we’re not going to let you fail. We’re going to get you what you need.”
Lame Deer’s elementary school struggles, but not to the same degree as the high school. In fact, the elementary school grew by 30 students last year, while the high school lost 30.
“After the sixth grade, we really start to see them fall off,” Henzie said.
By the time they reach ninth grade, students have a lot of choice, aside from dropping out. Parents who perceive Lame Deer High School as failing or who don’t like the Lame Deer school for other reasons enroll their teenagers at nearby Ashland, St. Labre, Hardin, Busby or Colstrip. Colstrip’s percentage of students performing at or above proficiency levels is among the highest in the state.
Lame Deer has the usual problems of small, isolated rural districts in recruiting and retaining teachers and administrators. The pay is relatively good — elementary positions advertised on OPI’s website this spring list a salary of $31,256 — but Lame Deer isn’t exactly a thriving metropolis with arts, entertainment and a nearby airport. The district has some housing available for teachers, but the nearest place to rent is probably Colstrip.
Teacher turnover is high, which makes consistency difficult both for the district and for students, who may be reluctant to bond with outsiders who may not be there from one year to the next.
Truancy is another huge factor. Henzie said tackling that issue is crucial to moving Lame Deer High School ahead.
“When kids aren’t in school, they aren’t going to progress,” she said. “We know if we improve attendance, we improve everything else.”
Lame Deer may be able to use the resources through Schools of Promise to find better solutions to those problems.