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Record Number Of Students To Graduate From MSU Program That Prepares American Indian School Leaders
by Montana State University News Service

A record number of students is expected to graduate this spring from a Montana State University program that prepares American Indian educators for leadership positions in schools with high populations of American Indian students.

In partnership with Little Big Horn College, MSU's Indian Leadership Education and Development program, or I LEAD, offers American Indian educators an opportunity to earn a master's degree in educational leadership and qualify for state licensure as principals and superintendents without having to leave their jobs. The program aims to place new American Indian principals and superintendents in schools with high populations of American Indian students.

Nineteen I LEAD students will graduate tomorrow, May 9, at MSU's spring commencement with master's degrees in educational leadership, according to Catherine M. Johnson, I LEAD project director. Another student graduated with a master's degree in the fall. Johnson added that 11 students from the I LEAD program will earn their superintendent licensure this spring and two more have earned principal licensure.

To have an increasing number of students graduating from I LEAD means that more of the program's graduates will be employed in schools with high populations of American Indian students – and that's a positive thing for those schools, according to Bill Ruff, one of the founders of I LEAD and currently the lead principal investigator of the grant that funds the program.

"More members of the (American Indian) community will have a greater voice in the administration of schools in these communities," Ruff said. "This is very important."

Ruff added that the increasing number of I LEAD graduates also indicates that positive things are happening at MSU.

"This demonstrates that MSU is creating the space for people from different cultures to co-exist and learn from each other," Ruff said.

Since I LEAD's inception in 2006, 104 students have completed the program and earned master's degrees and licensures, Johnson said. Ninety-three percent of those students have been placed in school leadership positions within two years of graduation, she added.

Each summer, I LEAD students spend four weeks on the MSU campus in Bozeman. Throughout the rest of the year, I LEAD participants meet as a group online or at a place locally accessible to students, such as Little Big Horn College. In between meetings, students complete course assignments via online methods. The curriculum is designed so that participants can use their class work to solve problems facing their schools. The program covers tuition, fees, books and a summer stipend for participants who commit to working as a school administrator for two years in a school with a significant portion of American Indian students. It also provides mentoring, tutoring sessions and various workshops to help its students succeed.

I LEAD student Greg Gourneau will graduate May 9 with a master's degree in educational leadership. Gourneau was raised in Poplar on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. He has enjoyed working as an 8th grade social studies teacher at the school from which he graduated, but he decided to enroll in the I LEAD program so that he could become a school administrator and have a larger impact.

"I've always liked helping people," Gourneau said. "As a school administrator, I have a more vast area to cover and can help more kids than those I would see in the classroom."

Gourneau will start in August as the principal of Frontier, a rural school by Wolf Point. He said that he hopes he will be able to help kids value education.

"Education to me is very important," Gourneau said. "Education opens doors for kids, and for people in general. It allows you to have options when you become an adult."

I LEAD student Toni Tatsey, from Browning, will also graduate this spring with a master's degree in educational leadership. She said the financial assistance the program provides enabled her to pursue the degree. Although she was initially hesitant to go back to school after having earned her bachelor's degree nearly 20 years previously, she said the first class took away any fears she had. She is now an assistant principal at the kindergarten through third grade level in Browning, a position she began in December.

"It's been going awesome so far," Tatsey said. "I've been thinking, 'why didn't I (enroll in this program) earlier?'"

Keith Erickson is currently the assistant principal at Poplar Elementary School. Born and raised in Poplar, Erickson has now worked in the school district for 16 years – eight years as a teacher and eight as an administrator. Erickson earned a master's degree through the I LEAD program in 2009, and he recently completed coursework for a doctorate in educational leadership with the help of the I LEAD program. Erickson also currently serves as a mentor through I LEAD.

Erickson said there are many positive parts of the program.

"I think that I LEAD is a program that from inception gave a voice to all of us who were working on reservation schools in regards to leadership," Erickson said. "Dr. Ruff and Dr. (Joanne) Erickson (another founder of the program) truly understood that things on reservation schools are sometimes different and should be treated as such. The network of Native administrators as a result of I LEAD is a very powerful thing and something that I am proud to be a part of."

Individuals who would like to learn more about I LEAD are invited to visit the program's website at or contact Johnson at (406) 994-7881 or

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