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Summer program aims to give Native students an extra boost

June 24, 2017

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Zayden Megaard threaded purple and red beads on to a keychain he was making at Orchard Elementary in Billings. Red is his favorite color, and purple is one of his grandfather’s.

The keychains also had a pair of elk ivories, which have long held significance for area Native American tribes.

“It shows that your family is well cared for,” said Megaard, who will be a fifth-grader next year.

Megaard is one of about 70 students enrolled in the School District 2 Indian Education summer school, which runs for four weeks during June for elementary school students. It’s the highest enrollment the program has had since SD2 started marketing it more about three years ago.

Students play outdoor games and work on projects that weave in academics. They get breakfast and lunch, and Friday field trips are held out as a carrot for good attendance.

“It’s just a really good cross section of kids from all over Billings,” said Indian Education director Jen Smith.

Clint Valandra, Skyview High’s home-to-school coordinator, taught traditional stories to younger students, anchored around a lesson about how tribes used many parts of the buffalo.

“The Wal-Mart of 1850,” he said. His program had part of a donated hide to help the lesson sink in for students. A high proportion of Native American students in SD2, who come from dozens of tribes, aren’t well-versed in their heritage.

“One in five kind of recognize some stuff,” Valandra said.

Summer school programs of any kind are few and far between in Montana. SD2 offers credit recovery for high-schoolers, and Laurel and Lockwood have programs.

But Montana provides no direct funding for summer school, and districts often find it hard to justify summer programs while budgeting for the nine-month school year.

The summer slide, a well-documented period of learning loss during the summer, can hit struggling students especially hard. Kids from low-income families typically experience a dip in reading skills over the summer, while other students improve or hold steady. The math skills of all students usually take a hit.

Math drills aren’t the focus of the Indian Education summer school, and several students attending were high performers, but the school-like structure helps kids keep in touch with academic skills. Heather Ekness, a Riverside Middle School teacher, helps lead large and small group sessions with students.

The program could expand in the future. Smith said there was enough interest for up to 100 students in the program this summer. However, it would require increased staffing.

Recent West High graduate Georgeline Morsette volunteers with the program, which a pair of younger siblings attend. She plans to attend Montana State University and study education, with the goal of becoming an art teacher.

She helped Valandra organize run-and-scream, a game with roots in teaching Native American children to alert adults of impending threats.

“You guys are old enough now that you’d be in charge of little kids down there,” Valandra told a group of fourth- and fifth-graders.

Morsette grew up in Bozeman, attending a small private elementary school.

“I was like the only Native student,” she said. “I’m glad my brother and sister get to (do this).”

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Information from: The Billings Gazette, http://www.billingsgazette.com

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