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Schools Of Promise Starts, May End, In Heart Butte

Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau visited Heart Butte last week to kick off the Schools of Promise program. She talked with students, parents and school staff about what the million dollar grant means for the school.
Corin Cates-Carney
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Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau visited Heart Butte last week to kick off the Schools of Promise program. She talked with students, parents and school staff about what the million dollar grant means for the school.

One of Montana’s lowest achieving schools is in line to receive over a million dollars in aid, starting next year.

Heart Butte High School and its 48 enrolled students are the newest recipients of the federally funded grant known as the Schools of Promise Initiative.

The program will give about a million and a half dollars to the school to spend over three years.

Heart Butte school is small. A half minute walk down the high school hallway leads to the grade school and their shared cafeteria.

Student art hangs on the walls, so do graphs marking student achievement. There’s the typical trophy case outside the school gym.

Other signs advise on the dangers of alcohol, heroin and other drugs.

Heart Butte is a place that with struggles in substance abuse and unemployment.

For Corrina Guardipee-Hall, the vice-superintendent and principal in Heart Butte, this grant will help students look at the future with a little more optimism.

“I think more than anything our kids need hope. They need to feel good about themselves. They need to feel like something is at the end of the rainbow.”

Over the next year Schools of Promise will work with teachers, administrators and students in Heart Butte to create a plan for the expected $1.4 million in federal aid.

Since 2010, Schools of Promise has worked with  seven schools around the state that sit in the bottom 5 percent of student achievement.

All of those schools are located on Native reservations.

But the more than $12 million that’s been supplied to Montana’s Schools of Promise may be drying up.

It’s not included in next year’s federal budget.

Earlier this year the Montana legislature declined to put any state funding into the program. But, not because state lawmakers think Schools of Promise doesn’t work.

It’s a money problem.

Hamilton Republican Nancy Ballance was the chair of the House appropriations committee this year.  She voted against the Schools of Promise funding bill.

Here’s Ballance speaking to the house right before the bill failed to pass in a 50-50 vote.

“I agree that we need additional programs, we need additional programs for our kids. Schools of Promise works. But, again the federal government put money into this program, we said we like it, it works and they pulled the money away.”

Now that the federal money is being pulled out, Ballance thinks Montana’s Office of Public Instruction should build this program into their budget.

“I think that we need to find the funding within OPI, continue this program, but let's continue within the money that we are already spending.”

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau supported the bill to put more state funds into Schools of Promise.

Because she terms out of her position in 2017. So she won’t be deciding whether OPI funds Schools of Promise with its own budget in the future.

The program has been one of Juneau’s major education campaigns of the past five years. She says the the funding allows the communities to start believing  themselves.

“People who are from here who are invested in these communities, getting their degree and then sticking around to make their community’s future better. Because that is really the way they are going to do it, through teaching and educating the young people.”

Juneau believes Schools of Promise is a temporary boost for a long term goal.

The program has documented increased test scores in some subjects while falling short in others. Graduation rates are inconsistent. Administrators say that's often because in small schools even one dropout can throw off a percentage.

Superintendent Juneau says for schools of promise to work, community leaders must build on the its short-term infusion of funding.

“Some of the schools we have been in have really embraced the changes that have occurred and have been able to sustain that effort. Others have not. So it’s really a mixed bag about leadership at the school level and whether that school board and that school leader can continue with the efforts that have been started. And find different ways of budgeting to keep programs in place, or not.”

Some of the funds Heart Butte High School is getting has to be spent on academic curriculum to raise math and reading scores. That needs to happen to comply with the federal grant guidelines.

Money will also go toward after school programs, sports teams, things that the students in Heart Butte can get excited about in their school besides going to class.

Schools of Promise also funds teacher accreditation, recruitment and retention, which has been a major problem in the past.

In Heart Butte, nearly half the staff has turned over in every one of the last three years.

Nichole Aimsback, a parent of two students in Heart Butte, says that’s one of the biggest issues limiting her kids education and she’s excited about what Schools of Promise might do to change that.

Many teachers that show up are a lot like some of the students, she says, they don’t see a future in Heart Butte.

“I hear a lot of kids, my son is one of them. He wants to get out, graduate from high school and get out of here and go to college. A lot of them say that. They want to leave here…Like I said there is nothing here. Its home…But there is nothing here in Heart Butte.”

Aimsback works as a TA in the Heart Butte schools District. She also coaches the school's volleyball team. She says change in her community and school is going to take time. But she hopes Schools of Promise is the start of that.

But, if funding is kept out of federal and state education budgets, Heart Butte could be one of Montana’s last Schools of Promise.

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