As Avis Chenoweth settles into her new job as a Native American specialist for Missoula County Public Schools, she finds two words best describe how she feels about her role.
“Overwhelmed and inspired,” said Chenoweth, who is Chippewa-Cree and had a long teaching career in north-central Montana before coming to Missoula.
“There is a lot to do, but the work is so rewarding,” she said on Tuesday while visiting with Meadow Hill Middle School students.
Chenoweth, who was hired in October, is assigned to Meadow Hill and Washington middle schools, Cold Springs Elementary School and Sentinel High School.
In charge of mentoring and supporting about 140 students, she is just getting her programming up and running. At its core, the focus is about connecting with and empowering Missoula’s Native American students.
“My goal and focus is to ensure that every Native student is succeeding academically, culturally and socially,” Chenoweth said. “And to do that requires making connections with Native students, their families and the school communities.
“My ultimate goal is to make sure that every Native American student graduates from high school.”
With each passing week, Chenoweth is learning the nuances of how each school is different, and how each has its own needs.
Along with meeting with students one on one, at Meadow Hill Chenoweth has started the Dream Catchers Lunch Club to create a sense of community within the school.
It’s an optional club that meets once a week, and it’s open to all students.
Some weeks there are more than 20 kids, other weeks there are a handful.
On Tuesday, eight students came – to learn physical fitness exercises and games taught by the Missoula Indian Education Center, have lunch together, and to also learn about making healthy life choices.
Laughter and learning filled the hour, which is always the case, said 11-year-old Hailey Hammett, who is a member of the Blackfeet tribe.
“I think it’s fun,” Hammett said of the weekly club. “And it’s fun to learn about your culture, about being safe, and learn things like alcohol prevention.”
“I really like it because she is teaching us about all the tribes in Montana – and sometimes we do activities,” said 11-year-old Ambrie Tahbo, whose heritage includes the Hopi, Tewa and Mojave tribes.
“I don’t see a lot of Native American adults here, and it’s nice to have someone who is, and someone who is in our school.”
With each lesson, with each student encounter no matter what their background, Chenoweth feels she is doing her part to advance the federal and state mandate of Indian Education for All.
“It is important to all kids – not just Native American kids,” Chenoweth said. “It opens their lens, it opens them to a world they may not have ever known or been exposed to.
“We as Natives have learned about cultures other than ours – now the state of Montana says all children will learn about Native Americans, and some people are uncomfortable with that,” she said. “But dissolving cultural barriers and misunderstanding is important, and so is empowering Native American students.”
Although she has plenty to teach and a long to-do list, just being visible in the schools, she believes, has a huge impact.
“What is so powerful is when a Native child sees the person who is teaching them as a reflection of themselves,” she said. “I’m not an official teacher, but it is empowering when Native students see Native teachers, principals and staff in their schools.
“It can literally change their lives – and it affects non-Native students positively because then they see Natives in a different light and that changes their world view and vision.”