When Lenna Little Plume started second grade at Missoula's Lewis and Clark Elementary in 2006, statistics suggested that she might face 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. Even if she stayed in, she might not excel: On average, American 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, 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. "I kind of felt that people would judge me because I wasn't the same as them," she says.
But Little Plume has excelled, thanks in part to an innovative set of state educational reforms that integrate 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, 33 years later, the state Legislature finally appropriated over $15 million to fulfill that mandate.
The result was a program called Indian Education for All, which provides model curricula, classroom materials and money to help schools foster a better understanding of American Indians at every grade level.
As Mandy Smoker-Broaddus, director of Montana's Indian Education Division and a member of the Assiniboine Tribe, puts it: All students do better in school when they see themselves represented accurately.
"If American Indians feel understood and respected by their teachers and peers, then their desire to learn will increase and the achievement gap will narrow," she says.
The scale of Montana's investment in integrating American Indian life into the classroom 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, while 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 Elementary, where teachers worked closely with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes. Science lessons there now include field studies of the sacred Bitterroot flower, and English lessons involve coyote trickster tales.
There have been early signs of success, at least anecdotally. At the annual Indian Education for All 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 American 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.
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 said in a talk to 300 teachers.
And Montana will be on its way to becoming a place of respect and dignity for all of its people.
Gabriel Furshong is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes from Missoula.