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How a Montana Tribe Is Growing Its Own Teachers

Rural districts often struggle to find and retain teachers. This can be even more difficult for tribal schools, which have some of the lowest test scores in the nation and enroll students who come from generations of poverty.

These challenges were detailed recently by a story in Slate about schools on Montana's Blackfeet reservation. The tribe has recently ramped up initiatives to train and employ more Native teachers in the hopes of hiring teachers who can better understand the lives of Native students and who are more likely to continue teaching in the community.

To expand the pool of potential educators, Blackfeet Community College recently partnered with the University of Montana to offer a four-year elementary education degree to students in the community college's two-year program. Students will earn their degree by taking online classes and in-person classes with visiting professors. The local school district also allows tribal members who have specific cultural and language knowledge to teach with a special license, and it recently started a language-immersion program to teach students the native Blackfeet language. That program will ultimately create more jobs for Blackfeet teachers.

2011 report in the Journal of Indigenous Research found that high-quality Native teachers are needed in tribal schools, and "many reservation schools continue to hire temporary and sometimes poorly prepared teachers to fill in the gaps" due to a lack of American Indian teachers. Native teachers account for less than 1 percent of the teachers enrolled in teacher preparation programs, even though 1.3 percent of the nation's K-12 students identify as Native students. 

 Nationwide, several colleges and universities have ramped up efforts to recruit and train more Native teachers. In 2014, Oregon's Portland State University received $1.2 million in federal money to recruit American Indian students to its teacher-preparation program. In Wisconsin, the Menominee Indian school district in Wisconsin has worked with the College of Menominee Nation to increase the percentage of Native teachers from 20 percent to 35 percent over the past decade. Officials say that has led to promising results—the district's graduation rate has increased from 60 percent to more than 95 percent since 2008.

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