Montana State University’s (MSU) Indian Leadership Education and Development (I LEAD) program, conducted in conjunction with Little Big Horn College, is getting ready to prepare another 40 American Indian educators to take principal and superintendent positions in schools with high populations of Native children.
The U.S. Department of Education has recognized the program’s success—50 of its 68 graduates are now in principal, superintendent or other administrative positions in Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, Alaska and Wyoming schools—with a $1.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to support 40 more students.
Two of the program’s best-known graduates are William Mendoza, Oglala-Sicangu Lakota, who was appointed executive director of the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education by President Barack Obama in 2011, and Keith Moore, Rosebud Sioux, former director of Indian education at the Bureau of Indian Education.
I LEAD graduate Jason D. Cummins, Crow, didn’t go to Washington. He went home and is now principal of a 128-student K-8 school and superintendent of the Wyola School District on the southern edge of the Crow Reservation in Montana. “We need Native leaders to rise up in every area—health care, education, finance. MSU’s I LEAD program has helped to do this in the area of academic leadership,” says Cummins.
The school MSU has forged a close relationship between the I LEAD program and its doctoral program in education. Cummins is finishing his doctorate at the university, as is I LEAD graduate Roberta Bizardie, Rosebud Sioux, who is in her second year as principal of a 440-student, K-3 school on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in Mission, South Dakota.
A fundamental reason the I LEAD program exists is the well-documented achievement gap between American Indian/Alaska Native school kids and their white counterparts, says William G. Ruff, professor of education at Montana State and the program’s administrator. “In Montana, we have 2.7 percent of the teaching staff who are Native American and four percent of principals, but 12 percent of the population is Native American. We have a long way to go before we achieve representation. “There needs to be a Native American voice in schools with Native American students, or the achievement gap is doomed to continue. There must be a voice recognizing the importance of identity and diversity to help create changes in schooling at local, state and federal levels.… If administrators are able to walk in two worlds, trust grows between the school and the community and that gives a voice to Native American education,” says Ruff.
Cummins explains what walking in two worlds means. “To walk in two worlds contains the understanding that you don’t have to choose between academic success and your rich cultural heritage. You can have both. It is possible to reinforce a child’s identity and provide academic excellence.”
Notes Ruff, “We can’t walk in two worlds if we only live in one,” so the cultural instructors for the I LEAD program come from American Indian resources, organizations and schools, including Little Big Horn College, which acts as advisor and receives the federal funds for the program. Frederica Left Hand, currently on sabbatical from her position as academic dean of Little Big Horn College while she, too, works on her doctorate at MSU, is project director.
Bizardie says one of the best features of the program was the willingness of instructors, staff and her fellow students at MSU to do whatever it took to help her succeed in the program. And that is something she has taken back to the school she once attended and now leads. “Many of our students come from homes on a reservation with high poverty, suicide, drug- and alcohol-abuse rates. We instill the hope that ‘yes, you can, and we’re going to help you.’ ”
Ruff says the program has formalized its commitment to providing whatever students need by including a mentoring component, which he says is partly responsible for I LEAD’s 90 percent retention rate of students who enter the program. Mentors are graduates of the program who can help students negotiate the complexities of leadership in school systems structured by the dominant society. Bizardie says she has just been asked to take on a mentorship role. “I’m eager to get back into the program—I jumped for joy when I got the call. Mentoring is a piece that is needed. It’s a fast-paced [two-year] program. If you don’t have willpower and determination, you may not be able to complete the program, so mentors will be a big help.”
Ruff says he hopes to get 60 to 70 applicants for the 40 slots now available, thanks to the Department of Education grant. “We look at the traditional means of evaluating applicants, such as GPA and past school performance,” he says, “but we weight heavily letters of recommendation from people who know the educators and how they are performing. At least one person on the selection team is Native American.” Ruff strongly encourages educators to get in touch for more information about this unique and extremely successful program aimed at improving schooling for American Indian children.
For more information, contact Bill Ruff at firstname.lastname@example.org; 406-994-4182.