Trying new things in the name of progress is a linchpin of leadership in the Arlee Joint School District on the Flathead Reservation in Montana. Superintendent Mike Perry says he wants the district’s two principals to have space to innovate by changing practices that have not raised student achievement.
“I want our two principals to understand they have the freedom to try something new and just because one attempt didn’t work, that doesn’t in any way hamper my support for them trying something else that’s different,” Perry explains. “We’re going to try something new again.”
The 450-student Arlee Joint School District, which is part of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes is 65% Native American and operates on a four-day school week. The schedule has helped the district attract and retain teachers who are willing to travel to the district from Missoula, which is about 20 miles away and home to the University of Montana.
Trying new things also means replacing outdated facilities with modernized schools. Arlee is now building a new space for grades 3-6 to replace a facility that is nearly more than 90 years old. The $14 million project, which is an extension of the K-2 building, is being financed with ESSER funds and bonds approved by local voters.
To get those bonds passed, Perry invited community members on some eye-opening tours of the old building. “A lot of community members went to school here,” he notes. “Their memories of what the school looked like 30 or 40 years ago is not what the school looks like now. In their mind, it’s the same school they went to and it was fine.”
The project will feature a larger media center with a maker space and room for Salish language and Indian studies programs. There will also be formal—and creative—outdoor learning spaces right outside elementary classrooms. “We have mountains all around and it’s absolutely gorgeous,” Perry says. “We want our kids outside.”
‘The good that can come from school’
A Montana native, Perry says there is a misconception that education is not highly valued on Indian reservations. Still, a challenge the superintendent and his team face is a side effect of the large number of Arlee students who are being raised by their grandparents.
“Our guardians have a tendency to skip a generation,” Perry says. “Some of the guardians of our current students don’t understand what the landscape of education looks like, that it’s no longer a teacher standing in front of the room and just lecturing and trying to get kids to understand the instruction.”
Staff also sometimes have trouble connecting with guardians who had bad experiences in school. “We get a good amount of pushback from some grandparents when we contact them about issues we may be having with a student,” he says. “Some of those grandparents attended boarding schools and were unbelievably mistreated so they don’t have in their minds the good that can come from school.”
Arlee is also dealing with a severe shortage of classified staff. Recruiting bus drivers, custodians and paraprofessionals has been “10 times harder” than hiring teachers. He has received zero applications this year for vacant bus driver and custodian positions. “With the change in what people can make in other professions, to get someone to be a special education paraprofessional for what we can afford to pay them is almost impossible,” he points out. “We can’t afford to increase pay like a private business can.”
‘We care about them everywhere’
Arlee’s educators are now devoting much of their focus to literacy, particularly reading comprehension, across the K12 curriculum. “We will do all we can to bring in parents, guardians to get them involved, to show how important reading is,” he says. “If we make a concerted effort in that area, I think we’re going to see growth everywhere else.”
Perry also prioritizes staying involved in the day-to-day life of his schools, a task he says is easier in a smaller district. He helps coach high school volleyball, is licensed to cover bus routes, fills in as a substitute teacher and often drives several hours to Arlee’s away games, among other activities. He believes he’s also the first superintendent in decades who has lived in the Arlee community.
“I make sure students know that I’m interested in them 24/7—it’s not just when they’re on their campus. We care about how they’re doing everywhere,” he concludes.