More bad news: The bigger the school, the less likely an Indian student was to graduate. In high schools with enrollments more than 1,250 students, the dropout rate was the highest for American Indian students, at 13.5 percent, compared to 3.2 percent for K-12 schools with fewer than 75 students.
Montana’s education system is trying to reverse that alarming trend, and enhance the future of Indian students by helping them look at their past. Educators hope that as culturally relevant Indian-related education becomes more visible—especially in urban areas—they will see a significant decline in the number of American Indian dropouts. Foremost in this effort is the Indian Education for All (IEFA), a policy written into the state’s constitution 40 years ago.
In 1972, Montana became the first state to embrace the importance of knowledge about American Indian culture into the language of the state’s constitution. Article 10, Section 1 of the constitution says, “The state recognizes the distinct and unique cultural heritage of American Indians and is committed in its educational goals to the preservation of their cultural integrity.”
However, it took almost 30 years for this commitment to Indian education to fully reverberate amongst Montana teachers and students. While many reservation schools naturally incorporated Native beliefs, values, and education into their curricula, for students in non-reservation and urban areas, it was left up to individual teachers to incorporate Indian education into their lesson plans, and most teachers simply didn’t have the training, expertise or will to tackle Montana Indian issues.
Denise Juneau, Mandan, Hidatsa and Blackfeet, is the state superintendent of the OPI for Montana. She says it took until 1999 and House Bill 528—Indian Education for All Act—sponsored by then-state representative Carol Juneau (her mother)—to bring the lack of funding to implement the objectives laid out in the state’s constitution to the forefront. A subsequent lawsuit in 2004 finally pushed the state to put money behind the implementation of IEFA.