When Lenna Little Plume started second grade at Lewis and Clark Elementary in Missoula, Mont., in 2006, statistics suggested that she might have a bleak future.
Montana's American Indian families earn 25 percent less than the average family -- an economic reality that can put Indian children at a disadvantage from their very first day in school. By fourth grade, there was a 70 percent chance that Little Plume would fail proficiency tests in reading. By ninth grade, she would be four times more likely than her white classmates to drop out of school. And even if she stayed in, she might not excel: On average, Indian students in Montana score 30 percent lower in math and reading than their white peers at all grade levels.
As if the road ahead wasn't already rocky enough, Little Plume's family had just moved from the rural Blackfeet Indian Reservation and she felt intimidated by Missoula, the state's second-largest city. At first, she struggled. "I don't know what happened," the T-shirt-clad fifth-grader told me recently over her lunch break. "I kind of felt that people would judge me because I wasn't the same as them."
But Little Plume has excelled, thanks in part to an innovative set of state educational reforms that integrate the perspectives of Montana's Native cultures into everyday lesson plans, from science to English to history. "It's hard to explain," she says. "It just felt good how interested people were and how many questions they had."
The 1972 Montana Constitution is the only one in the nation that recognizes the "unique cultural heritage of the American Indians" and mandates "the preservation of their cultural integrity through its educational system." In 2005, the state Legislature finally appropriated over $15 million to fulfill that mandate. The result was "Indian Education for All," or IEFA, a program that provides model curriculums, classroom materials and funding to help schools foster a better understanding of American Indians at every grade level. Proponents hope that the program will also help break the cycle of academic failure and unemployment that keeps half of Montana's American Indians below the poverty line.
All students do better in school when they see themselves represented accurately in their educational experience, notes Mandy Smoker-Broaddus, the director of Montana's Indian Education Division and a member of the Assiniboine Tribe. But curriculum changes alone aren't enough to keep Indian students from dropping out. "What matters most to students is relationships," she explains: If American Indians feel truly understood and respected by their teachers and peers, then their desire to learn will increase and the achievement gap will narrow.
The scale of Montana's investment in IEFA has made the state a national leader in Indian education. This year, the Montana Indian Education Division has eight people on staff and a $1.4 million budget. By comparison, the Washington Indian Education Division has a budget of $184,000 and two full-time employees, and Idaho has only one person on staff.
So far, the program has given schools $1.7 million in small grants. The first round went to schools that already had an Indian education plan, such as Lewis and Clark, where teachers worked closely with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes to develop new curriculum. Science lessons there now include field studies of the sacred Bitterroot flower, and English lessons involve traditional trickster tales. The next round funded professional development for schools that needed help getting started, like a K-12 school in Terry, Mont., that organized a seminar for 27 teachers on the Great Sioux War and a field trip to the site of the battle of the Little Big Horn. This year, grants will be designed to expand successful experiments on a school- or district-wide scale.
And there have been early signs of success, at least anecdotally. At the annual Indian Education Best Practice Conference in Helena last winter, stories like Little Plume's were common. One administrator spoke of an increase in parental involvement in multicultural activities, and teachers noted that some of the quieter Indian students were voicing their opinions in class for the first time.
While there is little research that directly connects this type of culturally responsive education to minority student achievement, a recent study by University of Montana communications professor Phyllis Ngai suggests that the program has helped foster the more welcoming, supportive environment at Little Plume's elementary school. After two years of research, Ngai concluded that students there demonstrated "impressive gains" in knowledge of Montana tribes. More importantly, she noted that "roughly twice the students at Lewis and Clark would like to have American Indian friends, to have American Indian teachers, and to help American Indians" compared to students at the other school used in the study.
And Lenna Little Plume is only one among many Indian students across Montana likely to benefit from the changing attitudes in their schools. Eventually, if all goes well, even Montanans outside the educational system will see a quantifiable return on their investment.
Denise Juneau, Montana's superintendent of Public Instruction and a member of the Blackfeet Tribe, says the proof will be plainly visible when students like Little Plume join the job force seven or eight years from now. "The kind of state legislators and tribal leaders we will have coming out of our schools will be fantastic," she boasted in her keynote address to 300 teachers at the Best Practices Conference. "Montana will be a place of respect and dignity for all its people."
Gabriel Furshong writes from Missoula, Montana.