"This job isn't for me," Erickson said. "It's for the kids. I want to see them achieve more than they have."
Erickson credits landing the position to his enrollment in the Indian Leadership Education and Development (ILEAD) program at Montana State University.
"Without me being in this program I never would have gotten the job," he said simply.
The program offers American Indian teachers in Montana an opportunity to earn a master's degree in school administration without having to leave their jobs. The program aims to place 55 new American Indian principals and superintendents in Montana by 2012, and it recently won a $1.3 million federal grant to expand its Montana work and provide services to place 15 American Indian administrators in South Dakota.
Each summer, all ILEAD students spend six weeks on the MSU campus. Throughout the rest of the year, ILEAD participants meet once a month as a group at either Fort Peck Community College or Little Big Horn Community College -- both are program partners -- and all participants also receive online education. The curriculum is designed so participants can use their class work to solve problems facing their schools. What's more, the program pays the tuition of participants who commit to teaching for two years in a school with a significant portion of American Indian students.
"Historically, the schools serving Native American children have not enjoyed the same levels of achievement as other schools in the state," said Joanne Erickson, who is not related to student Keith Erickson.
Nearly all reservation schools in Montana were identified as in need of improvement after the No Child Left Behind Act was passed, she added, but little had been done to work on the aspect of leadership, which she said is critical to a school's success.
"We know from research that you can't have quality schools when you have high levels of administrative turnover," she said. "Quality administrative leadership contributes as much to student achievement as quality teaching."
Keith Erickson is just one of nearly 70 American Indians in the ILEAD program. Besides helping those students land jobs, they said ILEAD has been beneficial for a number of reasons.
For starters, the program is a good mix of theory and practical advice.
"For me, you have to have a lot of theory behind how to be a leader," Keith Erickson said. "But the practical stuff has almost benefited me more, because it's about how to survive in the job."
Because the program is intense and sometimes stressful, it also reflects the reality of a career as a principal or superintendent, he added, which has been helpful practice.
"You have to juggle things and prioritize," he said.
The program's intensity also helps the students to achieve more, said Roxanne Not Afraid, 34, an ILEAD student and 4th grade teacher in the Hardin School District.
"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."
Garla Williamson, an ILEAD student who has worked for three years as principal of Pretty Eagle Catholic School in St. Xavier, values the program for its networking potentials. When tough issues arise, she's able to call on any number of colleagues in similar situations to help by sharing their own experiences and brainstorming solutions.
While the students could earn the same degree without ILEAD, it would be much more difficult, said Williamson, who is 35. Because the cost of tuition can be difficult to swing while working and raising a family -- Williamson has two young sons -- she said she is able to take more classes simultaneously because cost is not an issue.
Despite all it has done for them individually, Williamson, Keith Erickson and Not Afraid all agreed that the communities in which they work would benefit the most from ILEAD.
Because American Indians have a unique investment in schools serving Indians, they are best positioned to lead those schools, Keith Erickson said.
"We have a stake in our kids, and a bigger stake than non-Indians do in our community," he said. "That stake is crucial."
"There is a level of comfort," Williamson said. When I became principal, (parents) would say, 'at least you know our kids, our culture.'"
Keith Erickson agreed. "Skin color goes a long way with people being comfortable talking with you," he said. "They're more comfortable talking to another Indian...There's a comfort level talking to someone who's like you physically."
"It just opens the door for you to do some really great things with kids and families," Williamson said.
For related articles, see:
"MSU program brings Native Americans into school leadership roles," Jan. 31, 2008