Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

Laura Massey October 12, 2011 by Michael Becker • Published 10/12/11

Helping Montana Native children get a good Head Start
For Laura Massey, sitting down with
a writer for a magazine interview is nothing new.

After all, the early childhood education professor in Montana State University's College of Education, Health and Human Development has been profiled by magazines and journals before, mostly because of the project she started at MSU to help tribal Head Start teachers finish their bachelor's degrees without leaving their homes--a project that has been held up as a national model.

Head Start, a comprehensive federal preschool program for children from low-income families, addresses the developmental, academic, psychosocial and health needs of children at a time in their lives when experts believe it can make the most difference to their future success.

However, when the 1998 Head Start Act required at least half of Head Start teachers in the country to have a degree by 2003, it threatened the programs in places like Indian reservations where teachers could not easily travel to earn a college degree.

Enter Massey and her project, the Early Childhood Education Distance Partnership, which has provided nearly 70 Head Start teachers on Montana Indian reservations the chance to complete their education through online classes. Recently, ECEDP received its second $1.2 million federal grant. Its first was in 2007.

The ECEDP project is most of the reason Massey has gotten the attention she has, but some of it simply has to do with her personality.

Colleagues and students have described her as committed, straight-talking and focused. They have called her a visionary, or at least a woman with a vision who knows just how she wants to make it a reality. One writer for Knowledge magazine even said Massey was on a "one-woman mission."

No-nonsense attitude aside, Massey also knows from personal experience what it takes to be a tribal educator. She is a member of the Penobscot tribe who grew up on that tribe's reservation in east-central Maine, where, she said, the sixth-grade dropout rate was at 97 percent when she transitioned to day school off the reservation because the tribal mission school only educated Indian children from kindergarten to grade 5.

Massey's belief that early childhood education provided by Native educators is an important tool to combat reservation dropout rates was one of the motivations behind the ECEDP project, which she started in 2000.

"(Native teachers) are strongly connected to their tribal communities and are in unique positions to provide the professional leadership that strengthens the bond among home, school and community," Massey said.

If Native teachers could not come to Bozeman to complete a required degree because of family and other responsibilities, she and Leona Skunkcap from Blackfeet Community College decided to bring MSU to them--via the Internet.

"It really was on a wing and a prayer," Massey said of the early days of the program. "There wasn't much set up here at MSU and on the tribal level."

Immediately, she faced technological challenges. Access to computers, let alone the Internet, was hard to come by on Montana reservations in 2000--it still is in some places. Few of the teachers who comprised Massey's first "cohort"--as she calls the groups of ECEDP students--had computers. Some had never even used one before.

"I was begging, borrowing and stealing computers," she said, recalling how she would drive around the state in a van, collecting decommissioned computers from state government offices, agencies and campuses.

Even though ECEDP wasn't grant-funded at that time, Massey and Skunkcap managed to pull together enough equipment and training to get it off the ground. Nine students from the Blackfeet Community College graduated from the first cohort in 2003. The partnership has expanded to include six tribal communities at 16 Head Start/early childhood sites.

Dede Baker, an adjunct instructor in Early Childhood Education and Child Services, has been teaching courses in the ECEDP since that first cohort.

Baker said Massey is particular about whom she lets teach ECEDP courses, and she requires all the professors to visit the communities where their students live, even though the courses are Web-based. Massey wanted the professors to have a better idea of where their students were coming from, Baker said.

"They really, through the years, have said how much it meant for them to meet the instructors they met online, so they had a face to put to the name," Baker said. "It was very important for them and for us also."

"I think I've learned much more about Native American culture because of this, and I'm forever grateful," said Nancy Colton, a professor of health and human development who also teaches ECEDP courses. "I think it's made me a better teacher at MSU."

Colton said that Massey has been an excellent mentor, using her Native American background to help the professors become more aware of cultural differences.

Not only does Massey mentor the professors, but she asks former students to become mentors to new students. One such mentor is Julie Schildt, who has worked for 29 years at the Head Start in Browning, where she is now the education supervisor. She graduated from the ECEDP program in 2006 and came back as a mentor.

"I think it helped to have somebody there they could come to and ask questions and be there to help," Schildt said.

The state-wide tribal partnership also helps establish connections between tribal Head Start teachers across the state. Before ECEDP, most of the tribal Head Starts operated on their own. Now, they can share ideas and success stories and keep each other motivated, Massey said.

"That was extremely valuable," she said. "It created such a strong community of learners who supported each other."

ECEDP has come a long way since its first cohort of nine students with cobbled-together, barely functional computers. The fifth cohort, which graduated in May, had 25 students from six Montana reservations who received laptops, printers and three years of Internet service to further their educations. On top of that, ECEDP now pays for the students' tuition and fees--students must repay the U.S. Department of Education Office of Indian Education through service, or in cash.

Ultimately, Massey wants to provide students who can't come to campus with the same level of education they'd receive sitting in a classroom in Bozeman. She wants to avoid the fate of some distance learning programs around the country that aren't planned well enough, or programs where quality suffers because of shortcuts or a lack of dedication from the faculty and staff.

"That (shortcutting students) is not something I'm willing to do for Native American students here," she said. ■