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Entering school

Students enter Medicine Crow Middle School in August 2016.

A report released Tuesday revealed that American Indian children in Montana confront more obstacles to success than nearly any other racial or ethnic subgroup in the United States.

The information comes out of the 2017 Race for Results report issued by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The report, the second one issued by the foundation, focuses on a more equal path to opportunity for all children in the United States. In part, it focuses on immigrant children, who comprise 10 percent of the population nationwide but only 3 percent in Montana.

The report also looks at racial and ethnic groups in each state, measuring their progress in key education, health and economic milestones. Native children make up 10 percent of the population of children in Montana.

The study uses a composite score of indicators on a scale of 1 to 1,000 to compare the different groups. Those indicators are broken into four areas:

  • early childhood.
  • education and early work experiences.
  • family resources.
  • neighborhood context.

Nationally, American Indian children fare worse than white children on all indicators, measuring 413 to 713 on the scale. In Montana, the gap is even wider, 671 for white children versus 267 for their Native counterparts — the second-lowest score for the 26 states for which data is available.

“It’s that gap, that opportunity gap that we’re really trying to focus on,” said Jennifer Calder, outreach and communications director for Montana KIDS COUNT.

The state organization’s mission is to improve child and family well-being in the state by disseminating research that boosts awareness of challenges and opportunities. The 2017 Race for Results report highlights some indicators that make success more difficult for minority populations.

For instance, 62 percent of white children in Montana live in families with incomes at or above 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, compared to 28 percent of Native children.

Forty-one percent of fourth-grade white students are reading at grade level, compared with 16 percent of the Native American fourth-graders. Also, 82 percent of white children live in areas of the state described as low-poverty, as opposed to 30 percent of American Indian children.

“Many of the states that fall into the bottom of the index have more rural, more isolated reservations,” Calder said. “They have fewer economic opportunities for families.”

It’s also important to look at the context of how these circumstances come about, she said. During the treaty settlements of 1800s, the tribes often were forced to settle on less-productive rural lands.

“There’s a reason, not an accident, that reservations have higher rates of concentrated poverty and fewer economic opportunities,” she said.

In addition, the government’s decision to place Native children in boarding schools years ago had ripple effects through the generations, Calder pointed out, equating it to a relay race where one generation’s struggles are handed down to the next.

“They started further behind and it makes it harder to catch up,” she said.

Recognizing the areas where children struggle can be a starting point for policy that helps turn them around, Calder said. For instance, evidence shows that early childhood education and health insurance make it more likely children will be healthy, will attend school more regularly and read at grade level, which helps close the gap between different populations.

Targeted strategies that focus on the needs of specific communities are also key, she said. Calder cited House Bill 118, the suicide-prevention bill, introduced by Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy and approved by the 2017 Montana Legislature.

With Native youth twice as likely to attempt suicide, “that’s an incredibly powerful, incredibly painful statistic,” she said.

The bill, in part, provides funding to develop activities that help decrease youth suicides. The work will be guided by the 2017 Montana Native Youth Suicide Reduction Strategic Plan.

“That’s a good example of looking at data and targeting the specific needs of children,” Calder said.



General Assignment and Health Care Reporter

General assignment and healthcare reporter at The Billings Gazette.