By T.J. GILLES - For The Outpost
Alternative schools and methodology, school circles for migratory students and other innovations are parts of a solution to helping Montana Native American students improve sub-par performance compared to their peers.
“It’s absolutely time to do something different,” said Mandy Smoker Broaddus of the Montana Office of Public Instruction at the recent Montana Indian Education Association annual meeting in Billings. “It just makes no sense to do the same things over and over again and come up with the same results.”
“The achievement gap is very real,” Ms. Broaddus said in her keynote address at the Holiday Inn Grand Montana. Ms. Broaddus’ job at OPI is to narrow the difference in performance between Indians and non-Indians in schools.
Denise Juneau, Blackfeet tribal member and Montana superintendent of Public Instruction, revealed some of the symptoms of that gap:
• In grades seven and eight, Native American students make up only 11.5 percent of Montana ’s school population – but account for 69.2 percent of junior-high dropouts.
• In high school, Indians make up 10.2 percent of the student body – but 23.4 percent of the dropouts.
• Indian students predominantly drop out in the ninth grade while non-Indians typically drop out in the 11th.
• Four-fifths of Montana ’s reservation schools did not make adequate yearly progress (AYP) in improving test scores.
• Of 37 Montana schools in restructuring because of long-term, chronic failure to improve test scores – 36 have 50 percent or more American Indian populations. Some are their sixth or seventh year of restructuring.
• From 2006-2008, only 20 percent to 25 percent of Indian 10th-graders were rated proficient in math, compared to 55-58 percent of Montana white students.
• During those same years, 48-62 percent of Montana Indian students were proficient in reading, compared to 78-82 percent of whites.
Ms. Broaddus said the gaps tend to increase as students progress through school.
She suggested more early child development and pre-kindergarten programs to allow kids to hit the academic ground running and be ahead of the game when entering the formal school setting.
“We have to hope and believe and believe again and again that all children can thrive if we can help them,” she said.
Her presentation included a YouTube video of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the National Press Club following a tour of the Northern Cheyenne Reservation last year.
In it, Mr. Duncan spoke of the reservation’s 70 percent unemployment rate, 60 percent to 65 percent dropout rate and his meetings with Cheyenne students.
He said he would consider it his personal failure if that Indian-white achievement gap isn’t severely narrowed during his term.
Students “have too many people telling them they’re not going to make it,” Mr. Duncan said. “They’re smart, committed, intelligent children who want to learn.”
Ms. Broaddus praised a “Circle of Schools” on and near the Cheyenne Reservation to deal with “shared students” who may transfer from one school to another (perhaps more than once) as they reside with different groups of their extended families for a time.
She said Colstrip, Lame Deer, St. Labre, Ashland and Northern Cheyenne (Busby) try to make such transfers seamless by coordinating curricula, assessments, and board academic and disciplinary policies “because students are mobile and we can’t always fix that.”
Box Elder schools on the Hi-Line were able to make adequate yearly progress through such innovations as “looping” - having teachers move through more than one grade with the same groups of students.
Ms. Broaddus said many students have increased their development and commitment through the Jobs for Montana Graduates program. In JMG, students may work on community service projects or other tasks to increase their sense of responsibility. She said 97 percent of JMG students graduate from high school and many also go on to college.
Theodora Black Weasel Weatherwax described Browning’s Project Choices alternative high school. Typically, students have dropped out of the regular school on the Blackfeet Reservation because of too many absences. The alternative school allows them to work at their own pace to earn their diplomas and “recover” lost credits that were not earned in the past. Daily attendance is not required but continuous progress is.
In addition to auditing students’ credit requirements, Project Choices students begin with an autobiography which includes their interests, family members, living arrangements and dreams and goals. Instructors thus are able to tailor instruction to these needs.
“A lot of our kids are emancipated. A lot of them have babies,” Ms. Weatherwax said. “A lot of our students are homeless.”
In the end, “they get to walk with them” at the regular Browning High graduation ceremony once they’ve recovered those credits and meant all the requirements, said Ms. Weatherwax. “They get to participate in prom” and attend other school events.
In a hearing of the Montana Advisory Council for Indian Education, Wolf Point Superintendent Tim Cody said, “I’m tired of throwing kids out of school” for truancy or other problems. “I’m not going to do that I can help it.”
Students quickly can accumulate too many absences because of lack of transportation on the far-flung reservation, caring for relatives (including newborns) or honoring deceased members of their extended families.
He said Wolf Point will be introducing online teaching so students don’t give up and can keep up with their grade levels by computer at home or in public libraries until they can return to school or meet the requirements for graduation.