Working to Increase Opportunity for All Kids

St. Ignatius High School sits on Montana's Flathead Reservation, against a towering backdrop of snow-capped mountains.

The magnitude of the range dwarfs the grassy football field and its stands. It's a powerful sight.

But there's a different image seared deepest into my mind from a recent visit to learn more about Montana's efforts to close the opportunity gap for American Indian students - an image that alluded to the magnitude of the challenges that students can face.

It was a short handwritten message on a hallway bulletin board covered in student pledges to finish high school. It stated: "I am going to graduate because I promised my mom I would, even if I lose her before I graduate."

Some of our students shoulder so much. Concentrated poverty, lacking health care services and lower expectations are issues for communities not just in northern Montana, but for many of our students across the country.

That visit added fuel to the work of my organization to help state chiefs close these opportunity gaps. Until every child is receiving an equitable opportunity for a high-quality education, we all must try harder.

Each state dynamic is different and each state's solution to its challenges will look different.

In Montana, I visited several schools on two reservations. On the Blackfeet Reservation, pride of culture runs deep. In one sparse classroom, young children sat in a circle on the floor around a teacher leading lessons in Blackfeet. Still at an age when some are restless and squirming, they practiced aloud.

Their language adorns the halls. Coyote: Aa-Pisi. Buffalo: Iin-Iiwa.

I saw schools, both public schools and a Bureau of Indian Education school, working hard with limited resources. One school hasn't had a permanent math teacher yet this year, but serves supper. Another school is committed to addressing the emotional and mental health needs of students.

Talk to the kids, though, and they have the same dreams as their counterparts in cities and suburbs across the nation, and they deserve the same shot. We must work to give it to them.

Montana Superintendent Denise Juneau is doing great work, and seeing results, through her Schools of Promise Initiative, but these issues are not exclusive to Montana. Look at various other states and you'll see pockets that need support and empowerment. It may be special education students, or English language learners.

This month, state chiefs will gather for the Council of Chief State School Officer's Annual Policy Forum and begin a conversation about what the chiefs can do to increase opportunity for all kids. We will discuss some specific solutions, including expanding access to early childhood education and making sure we support teachers, especially in communities where it's harder to recruit high quality educators.

I am excited about the commitment of chiefs in this area. Stay tuned for more from us. This work is hard, but of paramount importance, to give every child an equal education.