LAME DEER — Helping students access the services they need for success takes a partnership that goes beyond school boundaries.
That’s the message two state officials are bringing to communities with the state’s lowest-performing high schools. Tuesday, the pair took their Schools of Promise and Communities of Promise tour to Lame Deer.
State Superintendent Denise Juneau of the Office of Public Instruction and Anna Whiting Sorrell, director of the state Department of Public Health and Human Services, met in the morning with members of the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council. They were joined by other state officials, local education representatives and families of students.
Later in the day, Juneau and Sorrell took part in a forum at Lame Deer Elementary with school staff, service providers and health and human service employees to connect, improve coordination and identify future projects.
Juneau and Sorrell also will make trips to Pryor, on the Crow Reservation, and to Frazer, on the Fort Peck Reservation.
Sorrell said she and Juneau have had many conversations about ways to help students do well.
“We see the bridge between kids being healthy, kids being safe and then being able to succeed in school,” Sorrell said.
Juneau added that bringing physical and mental health services to the schools is one way to help students.
“To meet their health needs, their physical needs and their emotional needs, we look at a school as a one-stop shop where services can be provided on-site,” Juneau said.
Lame Deer, Pryor and Frazer all have high schools in the 2-year-old Schools of Promise program, designed to improve the academic performance at the state’s bottom-performing schools.
All three fall into the lowest 5 percent of the state’s Title I schools in academic proficiency.
OPI secured an $11.5 million, three-year Title I school improvement grant from the U.S. Department of Education to help the schools. To participate, the districts had to work with OPI on changes to help students improve their test scores.
That included allowing OPI to hire outside specialists to work with administrators, teachers and school boards, and to make connections among the schools, parents and communities.
Juneau said academic progress was impressive after the first year of Schools of Promise. The statistics included Lodge Grass High, which took part in the first year before OPI dropped it from the program.
“All of the schools together, their reading scores increased approximately 10 times more than the state average,” she said. “Last year, the math increased eight times more than the state average.”
In Lame Deer, the reading scores of 44 percent of high school 10th-graders increased by almost 12 points, she said, and their math scores increased by 6.6 points.
“Those are huge, huge gains in one year,” Juneau said.
The gains were made by administrators and teachers partnering with OPI specialists and the introduction of new curriculum, she said.
Now, with the second year of the grant nearly halfway through, a new component is being introduced. OPI received a $600,000 grant from the Montana Mental Health Settlement Trust to serve those communities.
A coordinator for that program has been hired. Now the hope is to connect the schools, communities and the state to help students get the physical and mental health services they need.
If that requires changes at the state level, Juneau said, she and Whiting Sorrell will do whatever is necessary.
“If there are different ways we can approach policies or rules, then we need to know that, and I think that’s part of our learning this afternoon,” she said.
Others at the meeting raised their own concerns. Busby District council representative Jace Killsback noted that although the Schools of Promise never formally mentions it, the entire program is focused on reservation schools.
“They might as well called it Montana Promise to Reservations because that’s where our failing schools are, that’s where the poverty is and that’s where we need to recruit better teachers,” he said. “There’s got to be some sort of incentive for them to come to a reservation where there’s a cultural divide, where there’s culture shock for non-Indians who come to the reservation and vice versa for students having non-Indian teachers.”
Lame Deer Public Schools Superintendent Bryan Kott said the district is working on an incentives program to recruit and retain teachers. He also said the hope over time is to hire more local people in the schools.
Tim Lamewoman Sr., who has a granddaughter in elementary school, agreed with Killsback on the difficulties. “We try every way to try to keep our kids at school and keep them going,” Lamewoman said. “But the issues of poverty and unemployment affect communities and it affects our schooling and education. Hopefully we can find ways to bring employment and start our walk away from poverty in Indian Country. And if that can happen, we’ll have good education for our children.”
Killsback also said an important part in boosting the schools is making sure tribal cultures and languages are taught.
Juneau said no curriculum exists to teach the native language, and suggested that might be something the tribes might undertake. But she said culture is definitely something that’s an emphasis in the program.
School Board Chairwoman June Bear Tusk said she’s proud of the work done by the staff, teachers, parents and the OPI during the first year of the program.
Money for teachers’ professional development has been great, she said, and all the schools are working better together than in the past.
Bear Tusk said she has also been impressed by the academic improvements.
“I know that we’re going to get stronger and I know we’re going to see more increase even this year,” she said. “Thank you, OPI, for being a part of that.”