MISSOULA -- After five years in the U.S. Army, after being treated badly in the outside world because of the color of his skin, Cecil B. Crawford vowed to never again leave the Blackfeet Reservation.
Yet as time went on, the warrior-artist could not make peace with the fact that he might have a higher calling than withdrawing into himself and his tribal home.
Looking for direction all those years ago, Crawford turned to his love of art for guidance and began college courses in Missoula with the idea that he would someday teach art to youngsters.
Then, as he was starting down that new path in the late 1980s, he had a vision.
“I had a dream that I was in this room filled with Native American students and there were wooden shelves all around,” Crawford shared recently. “I had never seen such a room, and I didn’t know where it was, but I was there with young Native students.”
Many years passed from the night he had that dream until the day about 12 years ago when Crawford received a call from Nancy Lerum, a Hellgate High School teacher who was awarded a grant to support Native American classes.
She needed someone to teach beading. Would he be interested? Lerum asked.
What started as an hour-a-day commitment to mostly Native American students evolved into more and more time in the school as Lerum learned all that Crawford offered.
“The things I know aren’t taught to teachers in college, so I was able to help teach things like cultural stories to those students,” Crawford explained. “But mostly I taught respect.”
The Hellgate students thrived under his tutelage and Crawford was asked to come back a second year.
When he returned, Crawford’s classes had been moved into the school’s old library, a place where he had never set foot.
“I walked into that room, and here were all those wooden shelves – just like my dream.
“And a room full of Native students.”
The dream, Crawford believes, prepared him for the time when Missoula County Public Schools put Indian Education for All in the spotlight, and committed in a new way to helping its Native American students succeed.
What began with small steps – and with Crawford as the only familiar face the district’s Native students ever saw in the halls – has become a program that has grown exponentially over the past six years.
Today, the Missoula district’s Indian Education Department has seven full-time Native American specialists, all of whom are Native Americans, and each has a special role to help guide the district’s K-12 students, who represent 53 tribes.
The once-scattered department got a boost when Superintendent Alex Apostle took the helm of MCPS in 2008 and moved Indian Education into a prominent place in the district administration building.
With the hirings, the department’s consolidation and the move to a high-profile work space have come some remarkable changes to the story of Missoula’s Native American students.
Last year, Native American students had a 75 percent graduation rate – up from 56 percent in 2007 for students who entered the school system in ninth grade and stayed all four years of high school, said Karen Allen, MCPS regional director of teaching and learning.
Among the one-year cohort of the senior class, it was a 90 percent graduation rate.
It’s a dramatic shift that is the result of focused work, Allen said.
“We’ve worked hard to get parents involved, to be partners with the schools and teachers, and we really changed the model of how we support our students,” she said.
Bolstering the Indian Education Department and allowing its staff to launch innovative outreach programs was an important step, but that work has been supported by teachers and school administrators who created a more welcoming environment through special events and additional programming, Apostle said.
Some of the most successful events are the Native American family nights and dinners at the schools, said Trilanda No Runner, who is Blackfeet and the mother of two elementary schoolchildren in Missoula.
A dinner at C.S. Porter Middle School this fall drew about 20 Native families and their students, as well as teachers and community members interested in helping those students succeed.
No Runner and her children were in the crowd.
“I really enjoy those nights because it lets me experience the school in a different way and see school as a safe and good place,” No Runner said. “I see how much the schools have changed since I was a child growing up in Browning.
“My needs weren’t met. I did no reading and I had to teach myself math. But my kids have come up through the Missoula school system and they are on top of their game.
“The teachers really help us turn their weaknesses into strengths and help make their strengths even stronger,” she said.
Although she would never have thought of college for herself, No Runner believes higher education is possible for her two girls because of the support the district offers.
“I see their report cards and I’m blown away by what I see – I’m seeing A’s and B’s,” No Runner said. “I know school is an important part of their success.”
The progress has been significant, but slow in coming, said Luanne KickingWoman, a MCPS Native American family specialist.
Having a larger Indian Education Department and larger presence in all the schools helps.
As she sees it, the biggest payoff starts with the littlest students; elementary schools are helping to make all students “reading ready” for the higher grades.
“People, like Kate Beals, who are working at the K-2 level are really making a difference,” KickingWoman said. “I think the students she started out with at the youngest levels are definitely showing up later in the system, in middle school and high school, with a much stronger foundation and the skills to be successful.
“What’s really encouraging is that they have the skills or knowledge to ask for help and ask where to go for help,” she said. “So Kate is someone who has become the foundation, and we are the support.”
Native American parents have stepped forward too, helping to educate teachers about Native culture and to build a background for teachers to work with, said Gisele Forrest, MCPS communication specialist.
Such discussions have had great results in the middle schools, especially at C.S. Porter, where parents and teachers have worked especially closely to improve the learning environment for Native students.
“Over the past six years, what I’ve seen is an actual dedication of the district overall to address the needs of students both academically and socially,” Forrest said. “Because of that, I think our students are better students and getting better grades.”
These days, Crawford, who used to work only at Hellgate, spends a day in every high school, and spends his fifth work day attending to administrative details.
He is a man of many hats, participating in classes, mentoring, helping with the school’s American Indian Business Leaders chapters, teaching beading and golf, and monitoring attendance.
If any one of his high school students is missing school or slipping in grades, he’s on the phone or making home visits to find out what is going on from the student.
Usually, absenteeism is a matter of solving a simple conundrum, such as helping the student get a bus pass for reliable transportation to school or giving the student a pep talk. Sometimes all it takes is giving them a pencil so they can take notes, Crawford said.
He’s learned that most of the Native kids he works with want to learn – want an education. But getting them to school and keeping them there is the biggest obstacle.
“We go through a culture shock when we leave the reservation,” Crawford said of his students, and of himself.
“Back home, we are not the minority – we talk the same, we look the same.”
“It’s hard for these kids to make that adjustment to a big city like Missoula,” he said. “And it’s hard to be a teenager. Add color of skin to that – and it’s really hard.
“A lot of these kids don’t have role models and for some of them, they will be the first in their family to graduate from high school.”
To that end, Crawford makes sure he’s on the front steps of school every morning, shaking hands with the students he works with and congratulating them for being there.
“I shake their hand because I am happy they are there – and because there’s always the chance I might never see them again.”
Wearing an eagle feather in his trademark fedora, Crawford walks the halls at Willard, where the largest number of Missoula’s Native students go to high school, putting miles on his Converse sneakers.
His students see him coming and reach out to greet him, usually with a smile.
“It’s nice,” said Nacona Chaparro, a 17-year-old senior at Willard who is of Borana-Hopi descent. “I like getting checked up on, it feels like someone cares.”
“Cecil and the whole Indian Education Department has helped motivate students and push themselves further,” said Kirsten Little Leaf, a 17-year-old member of Canada’s Blackfoot tribe.
“We all like seeing Cecil at school,” she said. “He makes it better.”
Most mornings, Crawford gets a request to do a smudging before class begins. When that happens, word quickly gets around the tight-knit school.
Within minutes, a dozen students, mostly Native but not all, gather on the third floor for a moment of quiet prayer and reflection.
When Crawford sets his braid of sweet grass to smoking, he encourages the teens to think about others, to pray for the soldiers at war – no matter what side they are fighting on – to remember that everyone has a burden or struggle that they wrestle with.
Afterward, the small group disbands silently, moving purposefully to their classes.
Like many of her Native classmates, Chaparro said she’s committed to graduating. “We are motivated to go further than our parents,” she said. “The last generation didn’t go too far, and I think most want to change that.
“I’m proud to be Native and I’m proud to be in school, and I will be graduating.”
Bob Earthboy, a 15-year-old freshman, has similar sentiments and offers his passionately.
“To get any job, you have to get a good education, and to get a really good education you go to college,” he said.
Like his fellow Native classmates, Earthboy made a deliberate choice to attend Willard, where the classes are smaller and there is more one-on-one opportunity with teachers.
“I came here because I wanted to succeed,” he said. “Looking back at a lot of our parents, we see what they could have done, how they could have gotten better jobs.
“We want to get fulfillment, and we are motivated by seeing what they could have done – and we want to do more.”
A deep smile creases Crawford’s face when he hears such words from the up-and-coming generation.
“My goal,” he said, “is 100 percent graduation. I know people laugh at that, but you have to have a goal, and these kids are working hard.
“We are making progress.”