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In Montana, challenges abound for students, but new solutions are emerging
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In Montana, challenges abound for students, but new solutions are emerging

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Naquan Williams works a late night shift at a pizzeria that keeps him on the clock until 4 a.m. 

He said he’s always held two or three jobs since he moved to Montana as a high school sophomore and became financially independent. This summer, he showed incoming freshmen around the Montana State University campus in Bozeman where he's studying political science and history.

He’s now entering his senior year at MSU, where he serves as the lead mentor for the Hilleman Scholars, a scholarship program that supports 50 Pell-eligible students from Montana every year from the time they set foot in the door as freshmen to graduation.

“I'd say that was a major part of me staying in college,” said Williams, who plans to apply for law school. “Just having that cohort from my freshman year and that little safety net of people on campus who I could talk to, who I knew I could trust.”

Carina Beck, the director of Hilleman Scholars, said preliminary data show that students in the program — who start at an academic disadvantage compared with their peers — matched or exceeded retention rates of their peers.

In the United States, education has been the traditional path to a more prosperous life, but schools and colleges are carrying a heavy load. For example, a 2019 study from the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice showed 45% of college students reported being food insecure in the 30 days before the survey, 56% were housing insecure in the previous year, and 17% had experienced homelessness in the past year.

Programs such as the Hilleman Scholars, proven to advance disadvantaged  students, exist in Montana, and Montana also plans to implement tested methods from City University of New York, which has campuses propelling a large portion of students up income brackets.

Courtney Ranchor, a student from Queens who attends LaGuardia Community College, said empathy is a necessary part of education.

“Before we could teach the mind, we have to teach the heart. We have to make sure the heart is taken care of. If someone is not OK as a person, if their mental state is not well, if they didn’t eat breakfast, they’re not going to care about the math problem they put on the board.

“They’re not going to have the ability to be the best person they can be and to rise to their potential. We have to look at people’s mental health. We have to look at all these things. When was the last time they took a shower? Do they have these basic needs?”

Montana has its own particular challenges. Geographic barriers. A cultural divide between its urban centers and rural areas and reservations. Families who don’t earn a lot of money.

But the Treasure State is driving at change and building on successes. Campuses that help push students to degrees will be the ones that have a listening ear bent toward students and families; energy to address their needs; and in some cases, chutzpah to make bold changes.

Montana State University-Northern is tops in the state for pushing students up the income ladder. Faculty member Chad Spangler said he knows a couple of his students will lose motivation every semester, and he works with them. “They’ve got a girlfriend or they’ve experimented with drinking or who knows. They’ll go through a rough patch.”

So he gives them opportunities to catch up. “They’re going to make mistakes.”

Faculty member Terri Hildebrand said teaching is part of how MSU-Northern guides students to better futures.

“I don’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘What can I do to make students upwardly mobile?’ I just sit there and say, ‘How can I challenge my students? How can I give them confidence in themselves?’” Hildebrand said. “I think the upward mobility and pulling yourself out of poverty comes from that. Northern isn’t known for that, and Northern needs to be known for that.”

This fall, three campuses that are part of the Montana University System will start recruiting for a pilot called Montana Project 10 to raise retention and graduation rates 10 points. It’s based off a model from CUNY.

Kelly Webster, chief of staff for UM President Seth Bodnar, said the model is going to allow campuses to more proactively use supports that are proven to work for students. UM, Helena College, and MSU-Billings are all part of the pilot.

“Whether Montana Project 10 exists or not, our intention is to scale this kind of curated suite of supports for students,” Webster said.

UM is also creating advisory centers across campus. Darlene Samson, the director of TRIO Student Support Services, said she thinks the centers will give students better access to advising and ultimately help get students to graduation.

Sandra Bauman, associate dean of academic and student affairs at Helena College, said she wants to take the supports offered through TRIO and infuse them throughout the campus so all students have opportunities for things like tutoring.

“We’re hoping by doing this, it just becomes part of the norm. And it’s in the budget, and it’s paid for because we know what’s best for students,” Bauman said. 

Brock Tessman, in the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, said he believes the goals are achievable and even conservative. But a close evaluation is part of the undertaking.

“This is a substantial investment by the state. We need to be responsible and we need to track what is working and what is not working,” Tessman said.

Data show preschool is an important indicator for later academic success, as well as for social and emotional development. But Montana is one of fewer than 10 states that lack a publicly funded preschool program.

A state report found an earlier preschool pilot increased school readiness by about 21% and helped prepare more students for kindergarten.

Montana Office of Public Instruction Superintendent Elsie Arntzen did not support two bills that would have authorized public preschoo​l or continued the two-year pilot, arguing full funding for K-12 is a higher priority. 

In the meantime, some school districts are trying to continue the pilot on their own and scrambling to find funds.   

In Montana, storytelling is building the confidence of students too. At Helena College, faculty member Virginia Reeves started helping students from lower incomes who are part of TRIO produce their stories in a project called Necessary Narratives.

At Blackfeet Community College, Shelly Eli teaches Piikani culture, language and thought, and that history of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation is helping students make a turn in their lives. In class one day, she and the students discussed some Western interpretations of Piikani people and the cultural misunderstandings in those stories told by outsiders.

“I had one student tell me before he took my class there were times he would feel like he’d be ashamed to be an Indian. After learning the history, he’s like, 'Man. Wow. I didn’t know that. It just makes me want to learn more.'”

He felt proud of his history, and Eli said other students may have the same feelings he did and develop pride in their roots.

“Hopefully, they walk out of the class a little more inspired to learn more about who their people are,” Eli said.

Alden Spoonhunter, who taught beading at the college last semester, said many students struggle with their identity and feel disconnected from their culture.

“So they don’t really truly know who their people are. One thing the Blackfeet Community College does well is we instill pride back into who you are as an individual, but we do it from a communal worldview as opposed to an individual worldview."

Some students are disinclined to attend a nearby campus, and schools have to overcome biases, deserved or otherwise.

Adrianna Pittman, who attends UM-Western, said a lot of students from Dillon don’t want to enroll there. Even her sister, who she said doesn’t care what other people think, feared people “would talk” if she attended Western.

“That’s the smell they have under their nose about Western,” Pittman said. “ … Local Dillon people have a hard time accepting the fact that it’s not just a school, it’s a good school.”

Chancellor Beth Weatherby said Dillon nearly lost its college as students dwindled, forcing an evolution. Enrollment has grown since and other institutions are reaching out to ask about Western's "block schedule," where students take one course at a time in an immersive format.

“Change is so frequently made possible only because there is a drive and urgency to make something happen,” Weatherby said.

Educators throughout the state are increasingly viewing career and technical education programs as viable options for more students, too. Those certificates and programs are being seen as a way to help fill the state’s worker shortage and provide a first step to another degree or certificate.

“It seems like moms, dads, educators alike, we all kind of have pushed our students into our four-year campuses when really, there is every bit the opportunity for economic mobility on one of our two-year campuses with a short-term degree or certificate program,”said Angela McLean, in the Commissioner's Office.

Currently, a conversation is taking place across the country about the value of higher education. Commissioner Clay Christian said it’s both a public and a private good, a benefit to the individual and to society.

“What countries spend on research and education is an absolute driver of their GDP (gross domestic product),” Christian said. “Take a look at some of China’s numbers. Their emergence as a global power is on the heels of increased support from the government on education and research.”

Tessman said the national discussion about the value of higher education is fair, but he also said dollars aren’t the only measure.

“Part of our job is to stretch that conversation a bit so we don’t think of a degree (only) as a mechanism for a higher income.

“You’re not just a worker in Montana’s economy. You’re a Montanan. Being a Montanan and a successful Montanan, in my opinion, is certainly about contributing to the economy. It’s certainly about being an engaged and considerate citizen, a neighbor, a family member, a voter, whatever your voting inclination is.

“I think the moment we give too much ground on that front is the moment we’ve really lost what the essence of public higher education is.”

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