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The gift of public education

Photo courtesy of Lifetouch Photography

The nation’s first Native American woman elected to a statewide office brings a passion about public education to her job as Montana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction. And that passion poured forth Saturday during her luncheon address to the National Caucus of American Indian/Alaska Native School Board Members.

“Public education is still the great equalizer. It’s the last great public endeavor we have in America that is open to all, to every citizen,” said Denise Juneau, a member of the Mandan Indian tribe and Montana’s state schools chief since 2008. “Public education proves that America is still the land of opportunity. Public education in Montana was a gift to me. It’s part of what I am and what drove me to become an educator.”

In remarks entitled “Race, Poverty, Power and Politics in our Education System,” Juneau detailed a trio of initiatives in her state to ensure that every child has an equal opportunity to a quality education, including raising high school graduation and reducing dropout rates and improving low-performing schools.

But the topic that drew the most visible reaction from her audience was the push to ensure that “culturally relevant curriculum” is taught in each of the state’s 821 public schools.

“In Montana, all students receive an education that includes American Indian history, culture, and contemporary issues. These future state, tribal, and national leaders are going to make better decisions and have a better opportunity to work for justice for all because they will not be scared of the others,” Juneau said. “They will know that differences exist and, at the end of the day, will be able to look across the table and understand each other as human beings lending to the fabric of our communities.”

To that end, Montana’s adoption of Common Core standards has included state-funded Native American curriculum across the educational spectrum.

“For schools to say they are providing a quality education in this state, this is part of us. Schools must integrate Indian education into every content area for every student in the state,” she said.

With a teaching force that is 98 percent white, Juneau acknowledged her agency has had to empower teachers to learn about Native Americans and their tribes in order to teach their students.

“I like to think about the future. These kindergarten students are working their way through public education in a system with robust Indian education for all. Just think about the kinds of national, state, and tribal leaders these students will become and how far our state will have progressed in race relations,” Juneau said.

A unique aspect of Montana’s approach to turning around low-performing schools is the creation of state-funded, part-time school board coaches, which Juneau called “pretty fascinating” for their impact.

“We found that instability on the board can lead to instability in the schools. Some trustees may need more hands-on support to make their vision a reality,” she said. “I found the investment in these school board coaches to be instrumental in our school improvement effort. They work with trustees throughout the month, attend meetings, help problem solve, research, and advise on issues trustees are concerned about.”

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