Montana State University

Program to place American Indian teachers in school leadership roles receives $1.2 million

December 14, 2012 -- Anne Cantrell, MSU News

A math instructor at Little Big Horn College explains a concept in this photo from summer 2012. A collaborative program between Montana State University and Little Big Horn College that is designed to train American Indian educators and improve schools on and near Indian reservations in Montana and several neighboring states has received a grant worth more than $1.2 million. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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A collaborative program between Montana State University and Little Big Horn College that is designed to train American Indian educators and improve schools on and near Indian reservations in Montana and several neighboring states has received a grant worth more than $1.2 million.

The four-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education will enable MSU's Indian Leadership Education and Development program, or I LEAD, to continue and expand the scope of its work. Specifically, students from more states will be able to enroll in the program. In addition, the funds will go toward developing a new Center for Indian Education Leadership in partnership with Little Big Horn College in Crow Agency.

The I LEAD program offers American Indian teachers an opportunity to earn a master's degree in school administration without having to leave their jobs. The program aims to place new American Indian principals and superintendents in schools with high populations of American Indian students.

Bill Ruff, an MSU education professor and the program's administrator, said the I LEAD program ultimately is designed to address a pressing issue -- achievement in underperforming schools.

"Native American school administration is very underrepresented in this region of the country," Ruff said. "In addition, there has been a lot of turnover among school leaders on Native American reservations. We believe this turnover is contributing to an achievement gap. If we can facilitate the leadership development of educators who are already working in these communities, the chance of them staying in these communities is greater, which would in turn foster greater stability and higher performance."

Ruff added that most of the schools with high Native American student populations are in rural areas, where professional development training for teachers and administrators can be difficult to access.

Each summer, I LEAD students spend four weeks on the MSU campus in Bozeman. Throughout the rest of the year, I LEAD participants meet once a month as a group at a place locally accessible to students, such as Little Big Horn College. In between the monthly meetings, students complete course assignments via online methods. The curriculum is designed so that participants can use their class work to solve problems facing their schools. The program covers tuition, fees, books and a summer stipend for participants who commit to working as a school administrator for two years in a school with a significant portion of American Indian students. It also provides mentoring, tutoring sessions and various workshops to help its students succeed.

The new grant is different in several respects from previous grants awarded to I LEAD. The grant covers a four-state region -- Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota and Wyoming -- and will provide funding for 40 students to participate in the I LEAD program. A grant awarded in 2006 provided funding for 40 students from Montana; a second grant won in 2007 was for 30 students from Montana and South Dakota.

In addition, the grant was awarded in partnership with Little Big Horn College, and through that partnership, a center for Indian Education Leadership will be developed at Little Big Horn College. The center will be designed to generate and assemble research that will help I LEAD, and similar programs, to better prepare Native American school leaders, Ruff said.

Previous program participants have described the program as beneficial to themselves and the communities in which they work.

Roxanne Not Afraid was an elementary school teacher in the Hardin School District before enrolling in the I LEAD program. Now, she is the principal of Hardin Primary School.

During an interview given when she was an I LEAD student, Not Afraid said the program was overwhelming -- which was good.

"Program leaders have high expectations for me," she said. "The first week was overwhelming. But somebody has set those expectations up (high), and they believe we can do it. So it must be possible. It's hard work, but you feel good about it."

Keith Erickson, who became a school administrator in Poplar after completing the I LEAD program, said in a previous interview that because American Indians have a unique investment in schools serving Indians, they are better positioned to lead those schools.

"We have a stake in our kids, and a bigger stake than non-Indians do in our community," he said. "That stake is crucial."

Another graduate, Bill Mendoza, was named by President Obama in Dec. 2011 to head the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education, which is designed to help expand educational opportunities and improve educational outcomes for all American Indian and Alaska Native students. At the time of his appointment, Mendoza said he left the program with "tremendous knowledge" that he had been able to apply to his work.

In fact, 68 students have graduated from the I LEAD program so far, Ruff said. Of those graduates, 60 percent have been placed in school leadership positions within two years of graduation.

That's a success rate of which Ruff is proud. And, he said he believes the impact from I LEAD will continue to grow.

"It's exciting to be a part of this program," Ruff said. "It's really creating change."

Contact: Bill Ruff, (406) 994-4182 or