A few years ago, a math teacher at Willard Alternative High School became frustrated with the shortage of calculators in her classroom. Her Algebra I class had 12 students. Willard owned only seven graphing calculators. Students had to take turns or share.
The math teacher brought the issue to Willard Principal Jane Bennett, who explained the school's budget was as tight as it is every year. They couldn't afford more calculators. Bennett asked Missoula County Public Schools for help. An exception was made: MCPS would use federal Title I funds to buy five new calculators for Willard. On the surface, this seemed appropriate. Helping disadvantaged high school students get new calculators is exactly the sort of thing for which Title I is meant. What made this case an exception is that Willard Alternative High School isn't a school at all.
Technically, Willard is a program in support of Missoula public high schools. In some cases, this distinction is trivial. When a student graduates from Willard, they receive a diploma from Hellgate, Sentinel or Big Sky. If a student wants to play a sport, they try out for the Knights, Spartans or Eagles. But Willard's status as a program precludes it from receiving Title I funds, regardless of the needs of the students who go there. It's an issue that has teachers at the school up in arms, and MCPS officials pointing to existing protocol.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, Title I is meant to improve "the academic achievement of the disadvantaged." At the district level, Title I funds are allotted to schools who have significant percentages of students on "free-and-reduced lunch" plans. The money is then used at the school's discretion for those students who need supplemental support. Willard serves area high school students whose needs require smaller class sizes, additional attention and augmented schedules, so teachers believe it should be a target for Title I funding.
One Willard English teacher suspects many of her students were flagged as Title I students before they applied to Willard, but when they left their district school, the funds did not follow. "It's a simple math problem," says a math teacher. "If [a student] comes to Willard, we should get a certain percentage of their [Title I] allotment."
Heather Davis Schmidt, an executive regional director with MCPS, says protocol, not discretion, dictates who gets Title I funds. "We can't do anything when it comes to Willard and Title I," she says.
Yet, even if the system allowed Willard to receive Title I funding, it's not certain the program would receive a regular allotment. From the district's perspective, Title I funding is used to intervene in a struggling student's education. "Willard is a different kind of intervention," she says. "It wouldn't be a good decision to give Willard Title I funding because we're already investing a significant amount of money [in Willard]."
Davis Schmidt adds that budgetary problems are not unique to Willard. "I suspect if you went to any of our schools you'd hear similar complaints. There isn't a lot of funding," she says. "Ninety-one percent of the budget goes toward salaries."
Though Willard's woes are not unique, the student body is, and teachers say they acutely feel their lack of resources. A social studies teacher, who like all teachers interviewed for this story asked to remain anonymous to protect her job, remembers when her class participated in a special project interviewing war veterans at Montana Public Radio studios. She says her students responded well to the experience.
"We're a project-based learning school. It's how our students engage," she says. "It's what they came here for." The only problem was that Willard couldn't afford to transport the class. Each day, she and her students walked the three-and-a-half mile round trip.
The same teacher says the internet is so slow that she sometimes is forced to change lesson plans when videos fail to load. An English teacher says her computers were "outdated 10 years ago." The school library has three book shelves. If Willard is to be treated as a program of the district high schools, says one teacher, than "think of Willard as a classroom. Our classroom should have the same resources as everyone else."
The teachers added they understand there are no easy answers when it comes to funding public education, and they are willing to get creative in order to make up for what MCPS can't give them. One math teacher has partnered with the Department of Anthropology at the University of Montana. The anthropology students are designing a murder mystery that can only be solved with algebra. Willard students will measure blood splatter and bone fragments on their way to solving the crime. "They'll see that math has some real value," says the math teacher. "It's not just some made-up problem in a book."
So far, the project has no costs. She isn't sure, though, how they'll get to UM's campus.