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Ronan-Pablo school district, Montana celebrate 6 years of progress

Achievement gap narrows between Indian and non-Indian students, while reading and math proficiency levels rise due to special programs, creative learning and efforts of dedicated staff

RONAN — It’s late afternoon on the Monday after winter break and five Ronan Middle School students are still at school, printing. They work over small pieces of material, carefully drawing their designs and anxiously waiting to press their penciled drawings into the paint. 

Every student is participating and socializing, and most importantly, they are expressing their creativity in a safe environment after school.

The art instructor of the evening, Barnaby Smith, smiles and suggests that art is so therapeutic there should be an adult class.

The art class, along with a technology session, is part of the Ronan Middle School’s after school program funded by the 21st Century Grant. 

And according to Leslie Caye, Indian Education Coordinator, it’s one of the many programs that have made the Ronan School District more successful in Indian Education.

Each year students across the state in third through eighth grade are tested in reading and math in a test called the Criterion-Referenced Test. The results of the CRT are compiled and published on the Montana Office of Public Instruction’s website under the No Child Left Behind Report Card as mandated in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. It shows that in the last six years, the Ronan-Pablo school district has made great strides in the reading and math proficiency rates for Indian and non-Indian students alike.

For instance, proficiency levels for reading for Indian students in 2003 were 39 percent. By 2009, the report showed across the district, reading proficiency levels rose to 63 percent. 

Proficiency levels for non-Indian students for reading have also steadily risen from 65 percent to 83 percent in the last six years.

And it’s not just the Ronan-Pablo district that has seen such drastic improvements. 

According to a press release from OPI, Montana has been nationally recognized for improvement in narrowing the achievement gap between Indian and non-Indian students, and increasing student achievement for Indian and non-Indian students in the last six years. 

Despite the advancement, Indian students’ scores still trail those of non-Indian students. Administrators can’t pinpoint the exact reasons, but the staff is working hard to close the gap.

For example in 2009, the proficiency level for non-Indian students in math at Pablo was 74 percent. At the same school math proficiency levels for Indian children trailed 16 percentage points.

At Ronan Middle School, there is a 20 percentage point difference between Indian and non-Indian reading proficiency levels. 

The statistics also show that the achievement gap between the two groups is narrowing, and reading and math scores are on the rise. Though it is obvious that there is still a lot of work to be done, it is also apparent that the Ronan/Pablo School District has been doing something right for the last six years.


Six years of improvement

For the Ronan and Pablo schools, the last six years of success is something to be proud of. 

And they are. 

Superintendent Andy Holmlund compares the district to a duck sitting on the river. On the outside the duck doesn’t seem to be moving, but beneath the surface, the duck is constantly moving, adapting to the changes in the current, as the school district is constantly shaping its curriculum and programs inside and outside the classroom to fit the needs of each individual student. 

Outside the classroom, Caye researches grants that will fund new and old programs. He is sure that when students’ needs are met on a more personal level, they will perform better inside the classroom. 

“The needs of the students are being met in a different way,” Caye said. “Issues are not rising to the level they used to rise to, because they are met before that point.”

Caye is using the grants to fight problems such as tardiness, truancy and bullying that negatively affect the academic success of a student, as well as contribute to the overall graduation rate of the school. The issues serve as learning blocks for a student if they are not addressed immediately. 

“In younger grades so much of the stuff you learn is oral,” K. William Harvey reading coordinator Shelley Andres said. “And you can’t replace it when you are tardy.”

The goal of these programs is to make sure the students are prepared to sit down and learn within the classroom without the threat of outside distractions. 

Being prepared to learn a new lesson also depends on the completion and comprehension of the previous one. That’s what Crystal Meyer feels contributes to the success of the student inside the classroom. Meyer is the coordinator of the 21st Century Grant, which provides students with after school programs, complete with tutors, homework, art, science and sometimes a little fun. 

The after-school programs are beneficial to both students and their families. When parents are working until 5 or 6 p.m., their children have a safe place to go with their peers. When they arrive home that night, the rest of the evening remains for some family time. 

Bullying is also something that administrators and teachers agree has a  negative effect on learning. Andres notes that due to bullying, fifth grade students are less likely to participate in reading incentive programs because it is deemed “not cool,” by other children. 

Ronan-Pablo School District has invested a training day for staff devoted entirely to bullying prevention. The staff used the day to study the Olweus program, which is an anti-bullying program designed for teachers and staff to combat bullying, especially when it gets in the way of learning. The Olweus program is part of another grant-funded program, Safe and Drug-Free Schools, and it’s designed to meet the problem at its source. It has been found to reduce bullying in schools, improve the social atmosphere and to reduce vandalism, truancy and antisocial behaviors. 

There is also a belief among educators that Indian children learn differently than non-Indian children. Each year the district has a PIR day (Pupil Instruction Related) to train staff in topics related to Indian Education, in an attempt to introduce teaching methods that are more conducive to the Indian community.
Last August, the district brought in a guest speaker, Iris Pretty Paint. Pretty Paint is the Co-Director of Research Opportunities in Science for Native Americans at the University of Montana. She discussed the historic educational path in regards to the different ways children learn.
At the PIR day, teachers studied multiple learning styles that fit in the Indian community. They were presented with different ways they can meet all students at all need levels. 
Caye explained that making learning more concrete and visual helps some children learn. 
He used an example of a grant that started last year and enables K. William Harvey and Pablo Elementary School students to eat a healthy afternoon snack. Children can munch on anything from a celery stick to an exotic fruit, while learning about where its origins.  
“A lot of information can come through that,” Caye explained. “So you can get a geography lesson along with an interesting new snack.”
Educational tools
Teachers can continue to meet the learning needs of the student inside the classroom if the student is prepared to learn. 
The child’s needs are fulfilled outside the classroom, the staff is able to  help children learn inside the classroom.
And in the last six years, the Ronan-Pablo school district has worked on tailoring educational tools to help meet needs the individual students’ learning needs with a number of programs. 
In general, the goal of the reading program in the Ronan-Pablo school district is to creatively meet the learning needs of each individual student on his or her learning level.
By focusing on their strengths and working on their weaknesses, the school’s staff has tailored specific educational and teaching methods to each child. 
One of the programs that has helped at K. William Harvey is the Response to Intervention, explains Andres. RTI is sponsored by the OPI and offers the school district workshops for one teacher per elementary grade. The workshops help the teachers collect and interpret data about their classrooms which clarifies goals and classroom needs. 
The teachers are then more aware of the individual needs of the students and can utilize classroom tools to meet those needs. 
Pablo Elementary Principal Frank Ciez also said that his staff has been very creative in meeting the learning styles of each student. 
“We have done a good job of assessing where we are at and targeting kids who are struggling,” Ciez said. 
He noted that teachers utilize everyone from the parents of the students to the Pablo School librarian to get the job done.
Besides teachers becoming more creative in their teaching styles, Pablo and K. William Harvey Elementary schools have changed reading programs and developed Creative Learning Services and the Talented and Gifted program to support the advanced learner.
In 2000 the Ronan-Pablo school district instituted SFA (Success for All), a scientifically researched program that incorporates parental involvement and 90 minutes of reading a day into the elementary classroom and includes small groups. K. William Harvey was also using the reading program until the fall of 2009, when the school switched to Story Town — a change to keep learning fresh, according to Superintendent Andy Holmlund. 
Previously with SFA a child who had advanced reading skills could “walk to read,” explains Andres. If a second grader read on a fourth grade level, that child had reading class with the fourth graders, and vice versa.
Andres prefers Story Town to the methods of the SFA program. Story Town links children with similar abilities inside the class. Keeping the children inside the classroom familiarizes the teacher with the individual needs of the students.
Andres notes that the staff at K. William Harvey also utilize differentiated instruction. After gathering data from RTI, teachers think of ways to tailor instruction to individual students. 
Holmlund and Ciez both noted the creativity and dedication of the staff has helped the proficiency levels in the reading classroom immensely. Holmlund adds that teachers have also grown to be “attentive and responsive” to the learning needs of children in the classroom. 
The schools are striving to meet the needs of the whole learner, as well the whole child, Holmlund explained. 
“We look at each individual student,” Holmlund explained.
Holmlund noted that, besides his staff’s creativity and dedication to the individual, other programs, such as CLS and Talented and Gifted, support the advanced learner and have been effective in narrowing the achievement gap. 
“As kids grow, we are able to support the learner and move them toward advancement,” Holmlund said. 
Flathead proficiency rates high among Montana reservations
The school district’s hard work and dedication is paying off with higher proficiency rates, especially compared to other reservations.
According to the No Child Left Behind Report Card testing results presented by the Office of Public Instruction in the last six years, Indian students’ reading proficiency rate on the Flathead Reservation is significantly greater than those of some other reservations in Montana.
For instance, the average reading proficiency rate of American Indians for the Northern Cheyenne Reservation was 35 percent according to the CRT in 2007 and 2008. The average proficiency in math was even worse at a 19 percent proficiency rate. 
The proficiency level on the Flathead for math was the best out of any other reservation in the state. In 2008 it was 41 percent and the reading proficiency level was second only to Rocky Boy Reservation at 66 percent.
Caye suggests that the local success is due in part to the geographical location of Flathead Reservation between bigger cities like Missoula and Kalispell  Just by being an hour away from the two larger cities, opens up educational opportunities for the students and brings an array of different professional opportunities for their parents. 
The suggestion is that parents with higher paying jobs tend to realize the importance of reading and math skills and put a stronger emphasis on education. 
“Better paying jobs are here,” Caye explained. “That variety doesn’t exist on other reservations.”
The reservation is also benefited by the proximity to resources such as Wal-mart and grocery stores. Being sandwiched between two cultural centers and having access to commercial items creates a healthy environment for families, communities and schools, not to mention jobs. 
Andres, who previously was a teacher at St. Labre, a catholic school on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, agrees with Caye that the geographical location is a definite factor to the education success of Indian children. She also adds that the presence of Salish Kootenai College and the University of Montana in Missoula raises the value of education on Flathead. 
She noted that on the Northern Cheyenne reservation, factors such as poverty and the absence of higher educational institutions hindered students’ progress. 
Aiding the impacted
Despite the success of the past six years in the Ronan-Pablo School District, there is still a discrepancy in proficiency rates between Indian students and non-Indian students — a discrepancy that is rarely mentioned at school board meetings and that school staff members find difficult to counteract. Whether it’s an economic factor or whether it’s a distinct cultural difference in the way non-Indian students and Indian students learn, the reasons for the differences appear to be a number of factors that are hard to pinpoint.
Clearly there is no single answer to resolve the discrepancy in proficiency rates and the school is actively seeking comments and recommendations from the community.
The Ronan-Pablo School District is particularly working to open the topic up for discussion among the Indian community, and for the next two weeks, the Indian community has the opportunity to communicate opinions on the matter to the school board. 
Every third Wednesday of each month, Caye will report the data on Indian education in the Indian Education Report at a public forum in order to solicit feedback from the community. It is mandated by Impact Aid and within the guidelines of school board policy that the Indian Education Report be available for public comment and discussion. 
Impact Aid is a federal program that compensates school districts for federally owned land, such as military bases or lands exempt from state or local property tax, including land held in trust on reservations. Since Impact Aid was introduced in 1950, the federal government has provided extra funding to school districts on Indian reservations and military bases to make up for the disparity of tax revenues. 
Because of the mandates set in Impact Aid, school districts must have a public forum to discuss testing results and other statistics that are presented to the community and the Tribal Council in the Indian Education Report. Public forums are held to provide the community with information on Indian Education and receive invaluable feedback from the public, especially Indian parents. 
Since 2005, the Ronan/Pablo School District has held the meetings monthly in order to attract more attention from the community, but the forums are not well attended.
In October, Caye presented the Indian Education Report in Ronan to a sole listener, and the combined attendance of all the meetings in 2008 was a grand total of five attendees, Caye said.
“It’s critical that we are transparent,” Holmlund said. “And take guidance from constituents. The room may be full or not be full, but we will always be there for that dialogue.”
Public input, positive or negative, makes a public institution stronger, and without public comment and interaction, progress becomes stagnant, Caye explained.
“We are open to hearing about the things we are doing wrong,” Caye said. “Because when we miss something, we can’t remedy the issue if we don’t know about it.”
In addition to math and reading scores, the Indian Education Report collects data on free and reduced lunches, attendance, team/club participation, drop out statistics, enrollment and standardized test scores for both Indian and non-Indian students. The Ronan-Pablo school district policy states that Indian children participate in activities and programs like all other children; parents of Indian children are given the opportunity to present their views and give recommendations on the programs and activities; and Indian parents and tribes are consulted and involved in the planning of the programs and activities. 
The report and the feedback is then given to the staff and teachers in the district’s schools. Caye is required to present the information to the public. He insists, however, that he is not required to draw any conclusions from the report, but suggests that the Indian community can comment on the statistics reported and make suggestions during the public forum. In the beginning of March, he will compile those comments as a report and give the report to the staff. 
“Each year we go through professional development,” Caye said. “And the staff has a chance to see the information and an opportunity to talk about it.”
Then school administrations can see where each student lags and is able to make a determined step towards improvement, Caye said. 
Currently, the school district is continuing in the quest for grants that will sustain projects like the after-school programs, the snack program, breakfast program and the bullying prevention program. But since these grants are not directly related to education, the district must be aggressive in its search for grants. 
Caye is writing two separate grants for projects that will focus on preparing students for college and implementing Indian cultural education into the classroom. 
“The nice thing about it is, the money we receive to educate kids is set year in and year out,” Caye explained.
The grant money they receive can be spent in different ways and not directly on education, Caye said.
“That’s where we meet the community, where they are at,” Caye continued. “It makes us a better school because we are looking at whole student needs.”
Utilizing traditional and untraditional educational tools to meet the students’ learning needs does seem to be a focus of the school district. Whether it’s in class or outside the classroom, understanding the learner as a whole person and a student is at the forefront of the educational battlegrounds. School administrators are well aware that a hungry child, a bullied child, a distracted child, a child who is absent or tardy faces additional and difficult obstacles in their learning process, regardless of his or her ethnicity. They also understand that traditional methods of teaching have to evolve to reach students more effectively. No student learns the exact same way. 
The progress of the school district is also partially dependent on the communication and relationship it has with the community. And in the discussion of Indian education, the school district depends on the Indian community to participate in that discourse. 
“Our biggest hope is that the community participates in an open dialogue,” Caye said. “Just by having the meeting monthly, we intend for people to see and hear about it.”
The public forum for the Indian Education Report is held every third Wednesday of the month alternating between the Ronan Indian Senior Center and at the Late Louie Caye, Sr. building on the Salish Kootenai College campus in Pablo.

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