"It enabled me to stay at home," said Schildt, 54, who lives near Browning. "I didn't have to make any moves to attend school, and it enabled me to keep working. That made it more affordable."
MSU's Early Childhood Education Distance Partnership (ECEDP) program, from which Schildt graduated, and another program called Indian Leadership Education and Development (I LEAD) both provide access to degree programs for students throughout the state who have historically been underserved, according to Larry Baker, dean of MSU's College of Education, Health and Human Development, which houses the programs.
"The value of the two programs to Montana is that both serve critical needs of educators for access to degree programs, and they are community-based," Baker said. "Students are able to pursue their degrees without leaving professional positions, families and communities."
ECEDP is a unique distance-learning program that helps Head Start teachers and early childhood educators in tribal communities throughout Montana complete bachelor's degrees in early childhood education from MSU. Online courses enable ECEDP students to live and work in their home communities while connecting with other Head Start teachers throughout reservations in Montana.
"What I liked about it was the coursework was really helpful to me in my position here at Head Start as a teacher," said Schildt, who has been working with the Head Start program for nearly 30 years. "I was able to talk with other students (over the discussion boards) and hear what they were doing, as well as some of their questions and ideas. It really helped me."
The ECEDP program has graduated 35 students from Native American communities across the state since its inception in 2000, and another 29 students are currently enrolled and will graduate next spring.
Meanwhile, the I LEAD program celebrated its first graduating class at commencement this spring, with 21 students earning master's degrees in education in educational leadership. Four more students have completed the program's principal certification licensure program.
Forty more Native American students are also currently enrolled in the program.
The I LEAD 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. The program also recently expanded to include South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming and Alaska.
"Historically, the schools serving Native American children have not enjoyed the same levels of achievement as other schools in the state," said 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."
Each summer, all I LEAD students spend six weeks on the MSU campus. Throughout the rest of the year, I LEAD participants from Montana 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.
A need for a distance-based program in early childhood education also existed, according to Laura Massey, who started and directs the ECEDP program. Tribal colleges in several of Montana's reservation communities offer associate's degrees in early childhood education. However, until the ECEDP program began, a bachelor's degree had been out of reach for many Head Start educators because of the distance from a university, Massey said.
In addition, Massey said the dismal economic realities of many Native American communities and the familial and cultural factors of parenting and grandparenting have added to the challenges facing Indians who wish to further their education.
The program also helps Montana tribal Head Start programs meet the National Head Start Association and Congressional mandates that demand that at least 50 percent of all Head Start teachers obtain a bachelor's degree in early childhood education by 2010.
Federally funded by the Office of Indian Education, the ECEDP covers tuition and fees, a laptop computer, and three years of home Internet service for each student participant who has completed an associate's degree in early childhood education. It takes two years of coursework for these students to earn bachelor's degrees at MSU.
Schildt, now 54, began the ECEDP program in the spring of 2005 and graduated with a bachelor's degree in December 2006. She now mentors five students from the Blackfeet reservation who are currently enrolled in the program.
"I think I can relate to the students that are working full time and taking classes," she said. "When a student comes to me and they are feeling really overwhelmed, I tell them, 'I know it's hard, and you might have to stay up late, or work on a weekend, or give up some of your free time.'"
"I try to help them keep focused," she added. "The program is hard, but it's doable."
Students like Schildt, who give back to their communities, are a large reason the programs are so valuable to the state, Baker said.
"By investing time and resources in community-based programs such as I LEAD and ECDEP, graduates remain in their respective communities," Baker said. "Upon degree completion they will contribute to the educational achievement and success of future generations of students."
And, as Schildt put it: "This opportunity given to me through distance learning allowed me to do something that I had never even considered possible before."
Larry Baker, (406) 994-6752 or firstname.lastname@example.org