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Missoula schools get failing grade


If the Missoula County Public School district (MCPS) were a student, it would have been left back a long time ago. Or so say members of the Missoula-based Indian People’s Action (IPA),which released its “Racial Justice Report Card” documenting what it says are the school district’s failures to achieve racial equality in Missoula County’s public schools. The report, released on Martin Luther King Day, highlights what IPA identifies as “significant racial disparities” across a spectrum of indicators, from dropout rates to disciplinary action.

The racial justice report card measured 10 indicators of what IPA calls a persistent pattern of “institutional racism” in Missoula County Public Schools. Those indicators include dropout rates, graduation rates, college entrance rates, discipline, access to bilingual education, advanced class participation, diversity in teaching staff, quality of the learning environment, curriculum, and level of staff training. In only two of those categories—access to bilingual education and quality of the learning environment—did MCPS receive a passing grade.

“We’ve been working on this issue for nearly three years now,” says Montana People’s Action state chairwoman Anita Anderson. “The school district has moved from denying the problem exists to active resistance.”

The IPA report card provides statistics for not only Native American students, but also African American, Latino, Asian and Pacific Island students, as well as their white counterparts. It found that during the 1998-99 school year the dropout rate for students of color was 14.8 percent, compared to a 5.8 percent dropout rate for white students. In contrast, of the 280 students in advanced placement classes, only six were minority students.

“Missoula County tracks the drop-out and suspension rates [by race] but not graduation rates,” says IPA member Josh Brown. “What does that say about their expectations of Indian students?”

IPA also gave failing grades to the school district on its commitment to achieving racial equality among its teaching staff. Long a bone of contention between Native American parents and the school district, out of a total of 551 teachers, only seven are people of color, three of whom are Native American.

As of press time, neither MCPS Superintend-ent Mary Vagner nor MCPS Board of Trustees Chairman Mike Kupilik had seen a copy of the report and could not comment on its specifics. However, Kupilik did say that the board will continue to work with IPA and Native American parents to correct these problems.

“We have to track our dropout rates the way the state requires us to track, according to Hispanic, Asian, Native American and white, and those are the standard categories set forth by the state,” says Wagner. “We don’t make those decisions. Those are state decisions. … We have not desegregated our graduation rate, nor has the state asked for graduation rates to be reported.”

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