Unequal Education? 

Report accuses Missoula schools of neglecting Indian students

Carole Meyers, a member of Indian People’s Action (IPA), remembers two summers ago, when IPA confronted Missoula County Public Schools about the concerns some Native American parents had that they were being left out of decisions concerning their children’s education, and that the district was culturally insensitive.

“As a result, they addressed cultural training, but they stopped there. It needs to go beyond that point,” she says.

Scott Moffett, IPA’s chairman, agrees. “The diversity training we recommended was implemented, but only to administrators,” he says. “We want to see it given to more staff members and teachers on the front lines. We also want it to be ongoing and not just for two days.”

Nina Cramer and Joshua Brown, members of Montana Peoples Action, believe Missoula County Public Schools are culturally insensitive to Native Americans. “A lot of kids are dropping out,” says Cramer.

Fueled by their desire to see what was put in motion two years ago continue into the future, IPA recently submitted a report to the district which found that Missoula area schools need to improve their disciplinary, parental participation and cultural competency policies to better serve the needs of both Indian and low-income students.

“The district has been accepting of IPA and our issues,” Moffett says. “I hope they’ll read the report, come to decisions and then the process will continue.”

Mary Vagner, the MCPS Superintendent, says she can’t comment on the report until she reads it, but insists, “The district is doing a better job meeting the needs of all students. We don’t separate students out by ethnicity.”

Despite Vagner’s statement, though, IPA’s report states that a disproportionate number of Indian students are suspended, usually for one of two particular behavioral problems—fighting and the somewhat vague “defiance of authority.” The report goes on to say that fighting incidents are often “triggered by ongoing, long-term harassment of Indian students by others” with no staff intervention to protect the targeted kids.

A central problem with school disciplinary policies, Meyers says, is the lack of communication between administrators and the students being punished. During her five years as the Title IX Indian education coordinator for MCPS, she says she heard Native American students voice concerns that they were being singled out because of their race.

“There were some instances of a group of students, Indian and non-Indian, getting in trouble and the Indian student getting a harsher punishment,” Meyers points out. “Then that kid thinks he or she is singled out. At that time, administrators should sit down with the student and tell them why they are being punished so they know and don’t assume it’s because they’re Indian.”

IPA members stress that what they want is not special treatment, but equal treatment in a school district environment that is already familiar to white students, reinforcing their cultural norms and upbringing.

“I think what could be a wall is the lack of communication and maybe a lack of understanding between parents, students, teachers and administrators,” Meyers observes.

Both Moffett and Meyers feel that if the parents of Indian students were able to participate in these crucial decision-making meetings, there might be less disparity of treatment. But current procedures can make it hard for parents to meet with school officials.

A problem that working parents of all races face, for example, is that policy meetings, such as those held by the curriculum committee, often occur before 5 p.m., when many parents are unable to leave work.

Nina Cramer, a member of Montana Peoples Action, says as a single mother working full time, she saw her kids struggle with low self-esteem as a result of being tagged low-income, and therefore not college-bound, by a school counselor.

“A lot of kids are dropping out,” she says. “Some district policies talk about creating a dynamic learning environment, but what does learning mean? The district shouldn’t set barriers for parent participation.”

Beyond parent involvement, Meyers says it’s important for Native American students to have mentors and role models available in the classroom, and points to Hellgate High School’s bilingual and tutoring program as a good example of the entire district’s potential.

However, there are currently only four out of 750 certified teachers in the district who are Native American, despite a university next door that regularly produces qualified Indian teachers. Meyers says she knows of two such individuals recently who have applied to teach in MCPS but weren’t hired. “I never heard an explanation why,” she adds.

Denise Juneau, the Indian education specialist with Montana’s Office of Public Instruction, says a lack of Native American staff in schools is a state-wide problem.

“One girl told her parents that she wanted to be a teacher’s aide because Indians don’t become teachers,” Juneau says. “There is a definite need for students to see someone from their area or culture or family in the classroom.”

She is now going through data that her office has collected over the past few months by meeting with parents on all seven Montana reservations and in four urban areas, including Missoula.

“The issues with Indian students are the same across the state,” Juneau continues. “In the fall, we’ll release what we’ve found and hopefully show the reality of being an Indian student. There are common themes. The expectations on the part of students, teachers and parents seem to be of low quality. And of course, racism seems to be the common thread throughout.”

IPA plans a public meeting July 8, before the next MCPS school board meeting, to hear feedback about their report.

“We want to work with the district and the school board to make positive changes,” Meyers says. “There will be growing pains, but in the end it’s good for the community as a whole.”

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