The mechanism for this flurry of activity came in the form of School Improvement Grants (SIG) available to Title I schools. Title I schools are eligible for special assistance because of the percentage of students from low-income households. Normally, individual schools most in need of support — those that are not meeting Average Yearly Progress requirements under federal No Child Left Behind laws — apply for SIG grants distributed through OPI.
“This year will be a little different,” Juneau said.
Juneau said that this year, SIG money will not go directly to districts. Instead, OPI will administer the funds for Schools of Promise, provide the experts and technical assistance to help districts adopt and carry through individual strategic plans.
As part of the SIG program, each state had to identify its lowest-achieving 5 percent of school districts. Then the state had to decide which of four models it wanted to adopt in dealing with them.
Among the alternatives was the turnaround model like the one used in a Rhode Island school where all teachers were fired. The Rhode Island incident raised the fear factor when local schools began to hear that OPI had them in its sights.
Other models included a restart with an outside entity, or charter schools — something OPI does not support; closure, which OPI deemed impractical for isolated areas of rural Montana; and transformation, the model OPI has adopted.
Bryan Kott, interim superintendent at Lame Deer, said he first heard about the program early this year. OPI brought all the lower-achieving schools together to talk about which model for reform would be adopted.
Lame Deer had already launched a school improvement program, making the transformation model a good fit. Within a few months, OPI set to work drawing in parents, students, tribal leaders, school boards, teachers and administrators in each district gathering ideas and providing information on a still evolving process.
Sandy Watts, Big Horn County superintendent of schools, said she is excited about what Schools of Promise has to offer. She expects it will be a lot of work over the next three months customizing an implementation plan, engaging the community, providing training and making the necessary facilities improvements.
“It’s really going to be a lot of work,” she said. “We’re all learning about it every day. It’s a lot of change to grasp. But it’s one of the best chances I’ve seen to make real progress.”
Juneau and her team traveled to each of the school districts and arranged community meetings. She brought Eric Feaver, president of the MEA-MFT, with her. The union, which had to sign on before School Improvement Grants are accepted by OPI, is behind the program.
Despite rumors in some of the districts, there will be no mass firings of teachers, Feaver said.
“There is going to be plenty of support,” he said. “We are very interested in this. There are some teachers who have spent 20 years trying to fix things. This could be the vehicle for teachers who are most anxious to move forward. It’s as promising, or more promising, than anything else we’ve tried.”
Feaver approves of what’s happening at OPI in general.
“We really like Denise Juneau,” he said. “I believe Denise Juneau is a change agent.”
Don Johnson, superintendent at Frazer, sees excitement as well as trepidation.
“We have to do something,” he said. “But it will mean changes. A lot of people don’t accept change.”