Bozeman and the rural areas of northeastern Montana aren’t very close either on the state’s map or in population, but Montana State University of Bozeman is making a commitment to support Montana’s smaller schools and communities.
As part of a bus tour through northeastern Montana, MSU’s deans, administrators, faculty and student leaders arrived in Froid last week to learn about the educational challenges of such communities.
Froid Principal Janessa Parenteau noted the Froid community was settled in 1910. She said some of the current students represent the fourth generation of families that have walked through the school’s hallways. “We’re just not a school, we’re a family,” Parenteau explained to MSU officials.
Jayne Downey, director of MSU’s Center for Research on Rural Education, told the group that MSU is committed to finding methods to help rural schools and educators.
She said that many people tend to look at studies related to urban education rather than issues facing rural education.
Downey noted that 96 percent of Montana’s public school districts are classified as “small rural.” Only 51 schools in Montana have more than 500 students and more than half have less than 100 students.
“Rural education has kind of been invisible in recent years,” Downey said. “Our state covers the same distance of Chicago to D.C. This is our context.”
Areas of focus for the Center for Research on Rural Education include: Preparing new teachers and leaders for rural contexts, developing resources for Montana’s rural teachers and leaders, and supporting Montana’s communities.
Downey noted that last year, MSU collected data from the community, staff and students in Bainville so that school officials could look at the data as a tool when making difficult decisions.
During the last three years, MSU students have experienced a rural practicum where they have observed for a week in eastern Montana schools such as Froid, Sidney, Culbertson, Bainville, Big Sandy, Chinook and North Star.
“It’s to help the students see the advantage and assets of these communities,” Downey explained.
Pareanteau said the program has gone extremely well in Froid.
“We’ve enjoyed the kids that MSU has sent. They’ve been high quality,” Parenteau said. “They learned what it’s actually like to teach in rural areas and what it would be like to live here.”
Parenteau added that Froid assigns one teacher to work with the MSU students for the entire week.
“The ones we had this year were fantastic and I think one is going to push to have student teaching here,” Parenteau said.
A new element that MSU started this year was the rural field experience where a group of students experienced a few days in a rural community. This year’s school location was Broadus.
“When we were leaving, they all asked if they could stay a little longer,” Downey laughed.
The Center for Research on Rural Education is also looking to have rural teaching fellows and establish rural professional development. An international symposium for innovation in rural education is scheduled at MSU on Aug. 1-3. The phases of the program are only possible if funding is available.
Learning about Froid
Members of the MSU tour listened with interest as Parenteau described Froid’s school district. She noted that the district features 114 students and 17 teachers.
She added that Froid had only 80 students about 10 years ago. “Many of the students have a generation tie to the community,” she said.
Parenteau explained one advantage of small schools is the positive relationship between administrators and students. “We really get to know many students at a much younger age,” she said. “You get to know the type of person they are from the beginning.”
She also told the tour that the school’s staff includes four teachers, three administrators and two bus drivers from Froid and others who are also from northeastern Montana. She said the school has made building improvements throughout the years to make sure students are proud of the school.
The principal explained there have been some economic concerns because of last year’s drought conditions. Residents also dealt with 20 below temperatures during the winter and then cold and snowy conditions during calving season.
“You have to have faith to survive in a rural life,” Parenteau said.