Shari Daniels helps a student get out of his wheelchair during recess at Poplar Elementary School. Daniels worked with students with disabilities as a teacher’s aide before completing formal training to teach in her hometown. Credit: Erik Petersen for The Hechinger Report

The Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education has made short work of distributing funding for new K-12 educator preparation programs approved by the Legislature this spring. Three grants were approved this summer for initiatives designed to usher high school juniors into the teaching field, marking the state’s first direct investment in a recruitment and retention model that’s grown increasingly popular across the country.

House Bill 403 passed the 67th Legislature with strong bipartisan support in April, establishing Montana’s Grow Your Own Teacher grant program. Introducing his bill in late February, Rep. Tyson Running Wolf, D-Browning, noted that quality educators willing to relocate to classrooms in rural or reservation communities are “few and too little.” One solution, he proposed, is to inspire locals with a vested interest in their community to pursue a teaching career in their own backyards. Gov. Greg Gianforte signed HB 403 into law on May 14.

Angela McLean, director of American Indian and minority achievement and K-12 partnerships at OCHE, told Montana Free Press her office moved quickly to implement HB 403 this summer. OCHE settled on a model for the program focused on high school juniors and put out a request for proposals by the end of June. The goal, McLean said, was get the funding out to grant recipients in time for them to begin developing their Grow Your Own Teacher programs during the fall semester. 

Three proposals were received, and all three were approved, with each grantee slated to receive a total of $112,000 over the next two years. One of the primary requirements was that each grantee list as a partner a public school district on the state’s critical educator shortage list.

“It’s been a really quick turnaround, and a lot of time and energy has gone into it,” McLean said. “But right now we are just really focused on supporting our grantees in developing this infrastructure, spreading the word and getting students into their program so that we can support them on their path to becoming teachers in Montana.”

“It’s been a really quick turnaround, and a lot of time and energy has gone into it. But right now we are just really focused on supporting our grantees in developing this infrastructure, spreading the word and getting students into their program so that we can support them on their path to becoming teachers in Montana.”

Angela McLean, director of American Indian and minority achievement and K-12 partnerships at OCHE

One of the three applicants has already made headway in recruiting adults in the Browning community to join the district’s teacher workforce. Blackfeet Community College partnered with the University of Montana Western in 2016 to pilot a Grow Your Own Teacher program, ultimately providing the inspiration for HB 403. McLean said the new round of grant money from the state will enable the program to add a cohort of high school students to the mix, requiring some additional work by program leaders to develop coursework specific to those students.

The other two recipients are Montana State University Northern in Havre and Stone Child College in Box Elder. Both have partnered with area high schools to offer dual credit opportunities and mentorships to high school juniors specifically geared toward educator preparation. McLean said the programs don’t yet have firm student participation numbers but will likely have that information by the end of November.

Bonnie Rosette, head of Stone Child College’s teacher education department, said the college is tapping into its existing dual credit program to identify and begin mentoring students who are interested in teaching. Roughly 30 high school students from the Box Elder and Rocky Boy schools are already taking dual credit courses through Stone Child, and Rosette plans to roll out a survey to those students this fall to establish how many might enroll in an intro-to-education course this spring. Those students would have the opportunity, through the Grow Your Own Teacher grant, to serve as teaching aides in local schools as well.

Part of Stone Child College’s intent with the new program is to encourage participating students to take courses in the Cree language — an additional educational skill that Rosette said reflects the specific needs and desires of the surrounding community.

“I think that’s what makes our community distinctive,” Rosette said. “We’re all going to have different plans on how we would intend to grow our own in rural education, and that’s just something that would fit ours because I think that language is something that is really important to both schools and the reservation.”

Curtis Smeby is heading up MSU Northern’s Grow Your Own Teacher program and serves as chair of the Havre Public Schools Board of Trustees. He’s spent the past few weeks traveling to Great Falls, Harlem, Poplar and other communities throughout central Montana establishing a network of partner school districts. Six districts have already committed to the program in the first year, Smeby said, and another 15 will join for the program’s second year. Fort Peck Community College will also be joining as a partner in 2022, he added, calling MSU Northern’s plans “very ambitious.”

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One of the goals of the program, which MSU Northern has dubbed the “Teachers of Promise Pathway,” is to create a task force of key stakeholders from all participating communities, as well as from Great Falls College and Fort Belknap’s Aaniiih Nakoda College. According to MSU Northern’s implementation plan, the program is expected to serve a total of 30 to 40 high school students over the next two years. Smeby said those students will be given opportunities to take dual credit courses that meet the requirements for a teaching degree at no cost to them, potentially advancing their graduation by a full year. He added that some of that instruction could be individualized to a particular student’s teaching interests, such as practicums alongside music, physical education or art teachers.

“How much we can do that in a short period of time is somewhat debatable, but I think we can attempt to think about that,” Smeby said. “If somebody says, ‘Oh, I’d like to do that,’ well, we might be able to be the conduit to actually help them do it.”

Even as Montana’s new Grow Your Own Teacher programs move forward, it remains unclear exactly how they’ll be able to ensure the new teachers they produce stick around. McLean said that in addition to financial and logistical support, the state is working to help grantees build local support networks for participating students as a means of encouraging them to stay on as teachers. Smeby said there’s no real way to guarantee such an outcome beyond giving the students as much support and encouragement as possible.

“I don’t know how you’d monitor it or really control it,” he said.

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Staff reporter Alex Sakariassen covers the education beat and the state Legislature for Montana Free Press. Alex spent the past decade writing long-form narrative stories that spotlight the people, the politics, and the wilds of Montana. A North Dakota native, he splits his free time between Missoula’s ski slopes and the quiet trout water of the Rocky Mountain Front. Contact Alex by email at asakariassen@montanafreepress.org.