Tester Talks Education in Fort Belknap Visit
Efforts to strengthen the education system in Indian Country was one of the topics U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont ., discussed Tuesday during a visit to the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation.
Tester, who sits of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and is a former school teacher in his hometown of Big Sandy, spoke with a 10-student American Indian Studies class at Aaniiih Nakoda College, a tribal college on the reservation.
Among those in the audience were five women who, along with being students, are assistant teachers at either the reservation’s Head Start or early Head Start programs.
Tester praised the women for their work.
“I can’t applaud your efforts enough,” Tester said. “Education is how you improve your economic status, it’s how you improve your communities, and it’s the basis on which our democracy is built.”
He said it is when students are the youngest that teachers have the most impact. Tester said he wished Gov. Steve Bullock’s Early Edge program would have been approved by the state Legislature last session. It would have provided $37 million to fund voluntary pre-k programs for 4-year olds throughout the state by providing grants to school districts to either design their own programs or partner with an existing one.
Right now, Montana is one of only 10 states in the nation that does not fund pre-k programs.
Tester said programs to ensure students have access to nutrition assistance was important too because “if you got a kid in class sitting there and his stomach is empty, they aren’t going to learn.”
Tester’s office later listed, in documents, it provided the Tribal Nutrition Act of 2015 as an example of work the senator has done to tackle the issue of food assistance in Indian country. The legislation provides schools on reservations access to the same nutrition assistance programs non-reservation schools utilize.
Indian Country also faces a shortage of teachers, Tester said. He said his Native Educator Support and Training Act is a bill that would provide student loan forgiveness, new scholarships and pay incentives for teachers willing to teach at a reservation or a Bureau of Indian Education school.
He said many teachers are reluctant to relocate to rural and frontier areas where reservations are often located.
“For a lot of people, it’s outside their comfort zone, and we have to find ways to incentivize and that is through pay,” Tester said.
A host of other factors play into the decisions of prospective teachers about whether or not they take a job in a community, such as safety, access to clean water and other issues that can draw or dissuade teachers from working in or living on reservation communities, he said.
Tester said he is working to assist reservation communities by improving conditions through legislation to expand housing and rehabilitate crumbling schools.
Tester was asked by Sean Chandler, the professor of the class, if loan forgiveness programs will apply to students in tribal colleges. Tester said he was fairly certain that they did, but if they didn’t he’ll adjust it so that they would.
He said debt forgiveness is important for students attending tribal colleges, community colleges or technical schools because they often transfer to four-year colleges.
“That debt you accrue has got to be forgivable, otherwise, it’s a negative for the kids to even start schools,” Tester said.
Tester also briefly greeted and posed for pictures with children from the White Clay Immersion School housed at the college. The program teaches students in fourth through sixth grades about their traditional languages.
In the past, Tester has worked on legislation to provide federal money for immersion language programs.
Such programs are important, Tester said, because as the years go by, fewer people are fluent in their respective tribal languages which connect them with their tribal heritage. He said he has seen immersion programs in junior high and high school and their benefits.
He said such programs reduce the dropout rate and boost the GPA of students.
“So, if native language can help kids in school and help them do better in school, it’s really a win-win,” Tester said.