Making New Promises in Indian Country

A Montana reservation has a higher homicide rate than some of the country's most murderous cities. Here's what Obama, and the state's school superintendent, are doing to help.

A young tribal member in traditional dress attends a celebration on Montana's Crow reservation. Reuters

On December 2, President Obama delivered the keynote address at the third annual White House Tribal Nations Conference. His adoption into the Crow Tribe on the 2008 campaign trail had been a historic step in the relationship between the federal and tribal governments, and that warmth still lingered in the applause that greeted his appearance onstage.

That morning, Obama announced, in his administration's latest effort to reduce obstacles facing Indian communities, he had signed an executive order to lower the dropout rate and start closing the achievement gap for Native American and Alaska Native students. "Standing in this room, with leaders of all ages," he said, surveying the densely packed auditorium at the Department of Interior headquarters, "it's impossible not to be optimistic about the future of Indian Country."

Miles away that same morning, with the sky still draped like black velvet over the hard-bitten mountain town of Pryor, Montana, a 15-year-old boy leveled his .243 hunting rifle during a family fight and blew a hole in his father's chest. It was the fifth homicide in two months on the Crow Indian Reservation.

According to the 2010 census, the population of the reservation is just under 7,000. With a total of six suspicious deaths recorded last year, the homicide rate stood at 87.4 per 100,000 -- more than double the rate in Detroit, and nearly 50% higher than the rate in New Orleans, according to the most recent annual FBI data. Officials and members of the affected communities have been quick to label the crimes as isolated events, and a newly appointed police chief for the Bureau of Indian Affairs has announced plans to expand the 11-person force covering more than 2.2 million acres of reservation land. But just a few weeks ago, an altercation in Pryor between a police officer and a community member ended in gunshots and stirred the town again.

The recent violence flanking Obama's executive order raises troubling questions. Can school reform help alter the dark picture sketched in national statistics: crime rates more than twice and up to 20 times the U.S. average, unemployment estimated at 15.2%, soaring levels of sexual assault and domestic abuse? And how can reform be truly effective in the environment these problems have created?


To reach Pryor from I-90, you turn south at Billings and follow a skinny two-lane highway that snakes around cottonwood trees and coulees for 30 miles to a reduced speed sign that marks its otherwise seamless transition into the main street of town. Past the post office and the boarded-up Castle Rock Café and the corner gas pump, Plenty Coups High School sits beneath a ridge of sediment and pine. The boy with the rifle was a cross-country runner and an honor roll student at the school, where his father had gone before him. Less than a third of students made it to graduation last spring -- others drifted out of town, dropped out with kids to care for, or just stopped showing up.

Dan McGee, the principal of Plenty Coups and superintendent of the Pryor school district who started last June, is no stranger to tough conditions in his students' lives. But he was shocked by the news that December morning, suggesting a level of despair even he had never guessed at. "I thought, I can't imagine ever having to make that choice," he told me, picturing his student taking aim. 

But while the shooting was extreme, McGee is all too familiar with home situations that remove kids from the classroom: family transience due to job insecurity and lack of transportation, and missed days and slipping grades that make the prospect of return even more daunting. Finding a job after graduation is hard even with a diploma, andunemployment perpetuates the cycle of poverty that hampers academic success.

"Children are coming to school with everyday trauma. We need to treat that before they sit in a class and learn about math."

With the lowest graduation rate in the state and a long record of depressed test scores, Plenty Coups is one of three high schools enrolled in Montana's Schools of Promise Initiative, a three-year, $11.5 million project aimed at turning around the state's persistently lowest-performing schools. State Superintendent of Schools Denise Juneau, who designed the program using funds from a federal School Improvement Grant, is hopeful that the initiative -- now at its midway point -- can play a role in boosting not only academic performance, but also the communities enveloping each failing institution.

Juneau is tall and broad-shouldered, with dark bangs and eyes the concentrated blue of river water. When we met in her office on a snowy day this winter, she explained that her commitment to Indian education began long before Montana received the federal grant. A member of the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes, Juneau attended high school on the Blackfeet Reservation in Browning, Montana, where her parents were both teachers. After graduating from Harvard's Graduate School of Education, she taught high school English on a North Dakota reservation and back in Browning. She took over as director of Indian education for the state in 2006 and held the post until her election to superintendent two years later -- a position that made her the first Indian woman to hold a top statewide office in Montana.

While Schools of Promise was not conceived as a program to target Indian students, all the participating schools are on reservations. Juneau identifies their common denominator as a specific type of poverty -- deep, isolated, generational, and concentrated -- permeating the surrounding populations, and breeding conditions that have helped to land them in the state's bottom five percent. "Children are coming to school with trauma, everyday trauma, that they live under: violence in the homes, alcoholism in the community, unemployment that's 80 percent, not just during the recession," she said. "We need to help treat that before they can even go sit in a class and learn about math."

Schools of Promise is following the "transformation model" of school turnaround, one of the four types sanctioned by the Department of Education's Title I funding program. Compared to models that mandate full staff replacement or attempt to resurrect failing schools under charters, the milder transformation model, which aims to fortify existing personnel and policies, can allow schools to comply with DoE standards without implementing much actual change. But in isolated and impoverished areas, said Sam Redding, the director of the Center on Innovation and Improvement, who has studied reform implementation in rural areas, the other options are often unviable. Montana has no charter law, and firing sprees cause upheaval in tiny, remote communities, where existing teachers are often deeply embedded and new ones almost impossible to recruit. Even closing schools isn't an option. "You can't send kids elsewhere when there is no 'elsewhere,'" Redding said.

For Juneau, though, "transformation" is a literal order. Her initiative employs buttresses on every level: from instructors who help teachers implement classroom and curriculum changes, to school board coaches, to "transformation leaders" who work with administrators on execution and best practices. Academic influences off school grounds are also considered: Juneau's office recently acquired a $600,000 state grant for mental health services, which is now funneling into the Promise communities in a system of wraparound services -- identifying and strengthening existing support structures for individual students, and looping caregivers and mentors into sustainable frameworks.

And perhaps the most important contribution that Juneau brings to the Promise schools is an understanding of the history that pushed each of them to the breaking point.

Presented by

Sarah Yager is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Confessions of Moms Around the World

A global look at the hardest and best job ever


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open for 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.

More in National

Just In