Montana State University

MSU program to recruit, educate American Indian school leaders receives $1.3 million

November 17, 2016 -- By Marshall Swearingen for the MSU News Service

A previous group of students in the I LEAD Project gathers during a 2009 summer training class at Montana State University in Bozeman. MSU photo by Deb Redburn.

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BOZEMAN — A Montana State University program that recruits, educates and inducts American Indian educators into school leadership positions in Montana and neighboring states has received a $1.3 million grant.

The Indian Leadership Education and Development Project, or I LEAD, which operates as a collaborative between MSU and Little Big Horn College in Crow Agency, won the funding from the U.S. Department of Education in September. The grant marks the fourth time that I LEAD has received funding from that agency since the program began in 2006.

The grant will allow I LEAD to continue for four years, with a goal of placing 25 American Indian educators in leadership positions in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming, according to Bill Ruff, associate professor of educational leadership in MSU's College of Education, Health and Human Development and the I LEAD Project’s administrator.

"The vision is to continue to build the capacity of schools serving American Indian communities," Ruff said.

The I LEAD Project provides a way for American Indian educators to receive the education and training they need to become school principals and superintendents while continuing to serve their communities as teachers. Participants enrolled in the three-year program complete online coursework, meet regularly at distributed locations including Little Big Horn College, and convene for three-week summer sessions at the MSU campus. While working toward advanced degrees, including a master’s degree in educational leadership, students receive one-on-one mentorship from experienced American Indian administrators. For students who commit to working as administrators in school districts with a high proportion of American Indian students for two years, the program covers tuition, fees, books and a summer stipend.

According to Ruff, in 2006 only around a dozen American Indians were licensed as Montana school administrators, and schools serving American Indian communities tended to be rural, underserved and have a high rate of administrative turnover. Today, more than 100 American Indian educators are licensed as school administrators in Montana, and about 90 percent of these administrators are I LEAD graduates and serve in key leadership positions, he said.

Jason Cummins graduated from the first I LEAD cohort in 2009 and went on to serve as superintendent of Wyola schools for five years before becoming principal at Crow Agency Public School, his current position.

"I'm excited that (I LEAD) got that grant again, because they are making a positive change in Indian country," said Cummins, who now serves as an I LEAD mentor. "Historically, we got the superintendents and principals that nobody else wanted. Now, we're developing people from within the community."

Ruff said the grant will allow I LEAD to further expand into Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota, with an emphasis on teaching practical leadership skills and strengthening relationships with tribal communities.

"We're going to reach out beyond the educational institutions and see if we can connect better with the tribal councils and tribal elders," Ruff said. He added that a goal is to better tailor I LEAD instruction to individual community goals.

Also instrumental in securing the grant and implementing it are David Henderson, assistant professor of educational leadership at MSU, and Jioanna Carjuzaa, associate professor and executive director of MSU's Center for Bilingual and Multicultural, Ruff said. He noted that it is the third significant grant awarded to the center within the last six months.

According to Cummins, I LEAD is having a wide-reaching, positive impact by empowering educators who are invested in their communities.

"For them, it's more than just a job," he said.

"It's really a powerful thing that MSU has done through I LEAD," he added. "I really believe in what they're doing."

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

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