Montana’s achievement gap is between its white students and American Indian children, who, at 11 percent of the school-age population, are the state’s largest minority group.
American Indian children who live on reservations face a type of poverty not unlike that found in urban areas, Juneau said. It’s deep, generational, isolated, and concentrated.
“When you have those four components of poverty, anywhere in the country, you’re going to have schools that are struggling with academic achievement, just because of a lot of the challenges of their context,” she said in an interview in her office in Helena ahead of the visit to Heart Butte.
Unlike children in Baltimore or the Bronx or other areas where families have been impoverished for decades, though, children on reservations don’t have access to the services or educational options available to children in big cities.
The remoteness of Heart Butte and the other reservation schools necessitated a new turnaround model. Rather than implement some of the more dramatic measures used elsewhere—converting to charters or dismissing and re-hiring large numbers of staff—Juneau “Montana-ized” the School Improvement Grant model using a more collaborative approach.
The state doesn’t have a charter law, and staffing schools in these remote areas is already an issue, Juneau said. She and her staff, with representatives of the state teachers union in tow, visited the schools that fit the formula for assistance to make the case that they should become a School of Promise.
“Because it was a significant amount of dollars, we knew it had to be more of a partnership than just a granting of dollars,” Juneau said. The state has doled out a little more than $11.5 million on the effort since 2010, and will have spent about $14 million in total when the grants run out.
Small groups from schools, including teachers and students, came up with plans for what was needed for turnaround, and then Juneau, plus school leaders and the president of the local union, signed on to an agreement.
The state held on to the money because officials say the districts, all very small, didn’t have the capacity to make large-scale changes. Instead, the state education office provided direct services to districts, things like instructional coaches and reading and math interventions. School-board coaches help the lay people on the local board deal with the complexities of a multi-million dollar budget, hiring and firing, and the intricacies of federal funding.
Teachers also had to agree to a new evaluation system. Montana doesn’t have a federal Race to the Top grant or a No Child Left Behind waiver that in other states have been the impetus for an evaluation system tied to test scores.
Five years in, the program hasn’t always been successful. One district’s teachers union wouldn’t sign on; another district participated for one year but dropped out for the second.