In 2010 Denise Juneau, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe, was elected as Montana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, becoming the first Native American in Montana history to win a statewide election. Juneau, whose parents were teachers and who attended Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, has long been interested in the politics that determine how children are taught and what resources are devoted to schools. She recently spoke with me about her commitment to K-12 public education and about the reforms that she is pushing to improve the quality of education provided to children in low-income communities. —Sasha Abramsky
Denise, where are you from?
I grew up on the Blackfeet Reservation, in a town called Browning, a place where there’s not much economic opportunity, where unemployment hovers around 60 percent—not just during the recession but always. My parents were both teachers. They became educated after my brother and I were born, and always impressed upon us the importance of becoming educated. They grew up in deep poverty, my mother in North Dakota, my father here in Montana. They knew education really made a difference. Because they were teachers, we did not get to mess around too much. We were both pretty successful in high school, but some of my peers did not make it through high school. Some are in prison or are dead. I look back and see the kids who made it through school—it made a huge difference in their lives, which made me believe in the power of public education and what it can do for individuals and communities and the state.
You pushed legislation to raise the high school dropout age to 18, and also to combat bullying. Both bills were defeated by Tea Party–affiliated legislators. How do you push changes if you can’t pass them legislatively?
It’s important to set an expectation, that we expect every student to graduate from high school. I started traveling the state and meeting different business communities, chambers of commerce, parent groups, school districts—talking about what communities can do. We created an initiative called Graduation Matters Montana. The stakeholders are coming together, making plans. School districts can tell business communities the good things they are doing. Our seven largest districts are involved in Graduation Matters. More than half the students in Montana are now in a school with Graduation Matters. You see more adults paying attention to whether you’re in school. We raised our standards in English and math, to make sure the diploma means something when they walk across the stage. You’ll see business communities coming into schools to talk about job skills, tutoring programs from community organizations.
There are obviously huge educational disparities between wealthy and poor communities. What are your thoughts on this?
Because of where I grew up, we really did put a focus on looking at the lowest-performing schools in the state. There are a lot of issues that come when a school is located in a community of poverty—they’re all on reservations, we have seven reservations. I created an initiative called Schools of Promise. It’s about a specific type of poverty: deep, generational, isolated and concentrated. When you have that kind of poverty, you have schools that need support to perform well. We started working closely with these schools. Under the Recovery Act, a lot of money came into the state. And because of Title 1, we got an influx of federal money and really dug into these schools, and created a partnership with them; we made sure unions had buy-in, worked with school boards, had big community meetings. We took the federal guidelines and expanded them; put transformational leaders into schools to work with school administrators, school boards, coaches, community liaisons. We’ve seen some significant increases in test scores just in this one year.
You’ve had notable success in small, rural communities. Can you do this on a larger scale, in larger towns and cities around the country as well?
Look at our president, who was a community organizer in Chicago. It happens all across America. This is just a different form, but it has the same basic structure and purpose. Community organizing in a rural area—you know everyone, their families, their history. You can make connections a little easier.
At the back end, even if educational opportunity is increased, how do you use education reforms as a springboard to generating wealth in the community as a whole?
In any community there’s a strong pull home. People want to return, see their community get better economically and socially. You can build those community-grown opportunities for the kids who’ve graduated from college to return home, to provide businesses and support things going on. It’ll only happen through education.
A lot of people say that the public school system has failed, that it worked once but not anymore. But you don’t believe that. Why not?
I see our public schools in Montana performing very well. We don’t have charter schools. We have a few private schools. We have a group of people who want to privatize public education in our state and we consistently fight it back. Our public education system does a great job. I don’t think it’s broken. We aren’t interested in doing reform for reform’s sake. I believe in public education; it did a great job for me. It deserves our support and encouragement.