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Montana needs tribal teachers

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HELENA, Mont. - Hiring more tribal teachers, principals and staff across
the Montana would help keep American Indian students in school by providing
more positive role models.

That's the view of proponents speaking out in favor of a bill that would
authorize public school districts to adopt an Indian hiring preference for
most positions except superintendents and clerks.

House Bill 258 is sponsored by Rep. Dave Wanzenried, D-Missoula. At a Jan.
17 hearing before the House Education Committee, Wanzenried said the policy
would not be mandated to school boards. But if a district adopts the
policy, a hiring preference would have to be given to an Indian candidate
over another candidate who is equally qualified.

"It simply gives [districts] the tool to do it," Wanzenried said.

Bud Williams, deputy superintendent of the state Office of Public Education
(OPI), noted that 11 percent of the public school students in Montana are
American Indian, but less than 3 percent of the. state's teachers share the
same descent.

At the same time, said Rep. Carol Juneau, D-Browning, state figures show
drop-out rates for Indian students hovering around 50 percent. Indian
students, she said, "need to see themselves reflected in their school."

Juneau - who sponsored similar measures the past two legislative sessions
that were killed by Republicans - and other HB 258 proponents said the
state's constitutional promise to recognize the distinct and unique
cultural heritage of American Indians and to preserve that heritage through
education is not being fulfilled.

But, they added, this measure, along with others being presented to the
Legislature this year, will help fill the void.

"Is this the silver bullet that will solve everything," Wanzenried asked.
"It will not. This is just one part of a very complex problem."

Juneau urged the committee to start looking at education as part of the
state's larger economic system. Schools employ a lot of people - there are
more than 13,800 certified staff members in the state - and their salaries
repeatedly cycle through local communities. Juneau added that the hiring
preference would not have any impact on existing staff.

Calling the proposal "imminently reasonable," former U.S. Rep. Pat
Williams, D-Mont., also testified in favor of the bill. He explained that
all types of preferences and set-asides are routinely created by government
to give minorities, corporations and others a helping hand.

"An America without preferences, that left equity to chance," would not
progress very far, Williams said.

"It certainly can't hurt the situation," added Union Representative Erik
Burke of the Montana Education Association-Montana Federation of Teachers.
"It certainly could help."

"We definitely need to take a step in this direction," said DeeAnna Leader,
director of Indian education for the Great Falls School District.

Also speaking out in favor of the bill, among others, were Blackfeet Tribal
Chairman William "Allen" Talks About, Bob Vogel of the Montana School
Boards Association and Rep. Norma Bixby, D-Lame Deer.

"Our children relate to them," Bixby said of tribal teachers. "They stay in
school. They do much better."

Helping Indian students achieve is also the basis for another proposal
presented to the committee by Juneau. Her HB 137, requested by the
State-Tribal Relations Interim Committee, would create a drop-out
prevention program through OPI.

The new program would be designed to provide "information, resources and
technical assistance" to districts that have identified at-risk students
and need help keeping them in school.

Preventing students from leaving school and helping them graduate "is
probably one of the best economic strategies our state could take," Juneau
said. "If you don't graduate from high school, you're probably looking at a
lifetime of poverty. We will never have economic progress in our Indian
communities until we take action on that."

Juneau said most educators understandably like to work with children who
get their homework done, have involved parents, don't come to school
hungry, aren't abused, don't use drugs or alcohol and don't have run-ins
with the law.

Those are the "good" students, she said, but there's also a societal
responsibility to provide all the help possible for students who don't have
perfect lives, whatever their racial background.

"They can't leave [the things that happen to them] at the doorstep," she
said. "It's part of their makeup. They need to know opportunities await
them" when they come to school.

The state's incredibly high Indian drop-out rate "should shock the
conscience of all Montanans," said Helena attorney Denise Juneau. And if
the same thing were happening in the non-Indian community, she added,
there'd be guaranteed outrage.

Initially, only $50,000 was requested as seed money for the proposal. But
it was revealed at the hearing that Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer has
included $2.4 million in his budget to start OPI's pending tracking
program. The committee has not yet taken action on either of the bills.