Montana State University

MSU program brings Native Americans into school leadership roles

January 31, 2008 -- By Tracy Ellig, MSU News Service

"When the ILEAD application was given to me it was an answer to a prayer. It was just what I was looking for," said Jason Cummins, principal of Plenty Coups High School in Pryor. Montana State University's Indian Leadership and Development (ILEAD) program aims to more than triple the number of Native Americans serving as principals and superintendents in the state by offering students an opportunity to earn a master's degree in school administration without leaving their jobs.   High-Res Available

Subscribe to MSU Newsletters

Bobcat Bulletin is a weekly e-newsletter designed to bring the most recent and relevant news about Montana State University directly to friends and neighbors via email. Visit Bobcat Bulletin.

MSU Today e-mail brings you news and events on campus thrice weekly during the academic year. Visit the MSU Today calendar.

MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
Montana schools where more than 50 percent of the student population is Native American suffer from the highest rates of principal and superintendent turnover in the state. Native American students in those schools also suffer a high school dropout rate three times their white counterparts, according to the Montana Office of Public Instruction.

"We know from research that you can't have quality schools when you have high levels of administrative turnover," said Joanne Erickson, an MSU education professor who hopes to change those statistics. "Quality administrative leadership contributes as much to student achievement as quality teaching."

To keep more administrators on the job, Erickson and fellow MSU education professor Bill Ruff, designed the Indian Leadership and Development (ILEAD) program, which aims to place 55 new Native American principals and superintendents in Montana by 2012. The program recently won a $1.3 million federal grant to expand its Montana work and provide services to place 15 Native American administrators in South Dakota.

The high rate of administrative turnover applies almost exclusively to non-Indians. There are currently only 13 Native American administrators in Montana.

"Non-Indian administrators are less likely to stay on the job because they are not long term residents of the community and often don't tackle the tough issues facing these schools," Erickson said. "They may also lack the cultural understanding needed to succeed."

ILEAD offers Native American teachers in Montana an opportunity to earn a master's degree in school administration without having to leave their jobs. The program pays the tuition of participants who commit to teaching in a Native American school for two years. The program has 40 participants currently and a waiting list.

"Traditionally, these people would have to quit teaching and come to campus," Erickson said. "That proved to be a huge obstacle economically, logistically and culturally."

One of ILEAD's current participants, Jason Cummins, dropped out of college trying to earn his undergraduate teaching degree.

"Initially, I experienced culture shock, which I never thought would happen to me," Cummins said. "My tribe and family's traditional culture is built upon respect and relationships and the university was very formal, individualistic. I didn't feel like I belonged or was even wanted."

Cummins later earned his degree at the Little Big Horn College on the Crow Reservation. He was recently hired as the principal of Plenty Coups High School in Pryor.

"My major goal was to become an elementary or high school principal within the next five years," Cummins said. "I wanted to get a master's degree to do this, so when the ILEAD application was given to me it was an answer to a prayer. It was just what I was looking for."

ILEAD participants meet once a month as a group at either the Fort Peck Community College or the Little Big Horn Community College -- both are program partners -- and also receive online education. Each summer, all ILEAD members spend six weeks at the MSU campus. The curriculum is designed so participants can use their class work to solve problems facing their school.

"These are people who have solid, demonstrated leadership potential," Erickson said. "Some are exceptionally talented and have the potential to be stars in this work."

The program has offered tremendous support, preparation and growth, Cummins said.

"The program has forced me to step into a leadership role that others wanted for me and had previously attempted to get me to enter into," he said. "I am alive in a way that I wasn't before, like the way I came alive in the classroom at first. Now I am alive in a deeper sense. I am using my gifts to serve the kids and the community."

For related articles see:

"Montana wins $1.2 million to improve Native American schools" August 21, 2006

Contact: Bill Ruff (406) 994-4182 or; Joanne Erickson, (406) 994-2290 or