By Emily Stifler
In June, Denise Juneau, Montana’s Superintendent
of Public Instruction, hosted education
leaders from 11 rural states across the country
in Big Sky. The conference was sponsored by the
Council of Chief State School Officers and was an
opportunity for heads of state education departments
to address current issues in rural states.
This was the group’s second annual meeting.
The conference addressed American Indian education
issues, academic achievement in small, rural
schools, and ways to leverage resources, particularly
around the common core state standards and
new assessments. They also received information
on federal funding opportunities from the U.S.
Dept. of Education and the USDA and addressed
the “brain drain” in rural America.
“We had a presentation about all the definitions
of rural right now,” Juneau said. “They’re all federal
definitions, and they should all be the same,
but they’re all over the place. We talked about
what that means, why those definitions matter to
us, and how the U.S. map looks according to each
Representatives came from 12 states, including
Iowa, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New
Mexico, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Washington
During the conference, Superintendent Juneau
spoke with the Weekly about rural education issues
and why they matter to all Montanans.
Describe your position as the
Superintendent of Public Instruction.
I ran for election in ’08 and started
the job January ’09. It’s been great. I
travel, visit schools and set big state
policies. I work with the legislature
and other groups to focus on public
education and talk about the good
What’s your focus?
We have an initiative called ‘Graduation
Matters Montana’. We’re working
with businesses and communities
to spread that message, and hopefully
[help] schools focus on keeping kids
in school and making sure they’re
graduating college and career ready.
We had a legislative agenda to raise
the legal dropout age to 18. Right now
kids can drop out at 16—before we
let them make any major life decisions,
vote or do anything an adult
would do, we let them make a decision
that will change the rest of their
life. I worked with Taylor Brown
(R-Billings) on that bill, but it didn’t
What opportunities do high
school kids have for alternative or
They’re primarily based in our larger
cities, because they have the capacity
and the number of students.
Billings, for example, has the Career
Center – a high school based on
different career pathways. They
have engineering classes, technical
writing, a pre-school and a daycare.
All over the state, schools are doing
Do you work with students?
I have the first-ever state superintendent
student advisory board. We
brought 40 students from 31 high
schools to talk about dropout prevention.
We had valedictorians and
kids who’d dropped out of school
and then re-enrolled. It was good
to hear from across the spectrum.
I think they learned a lot being
around kids they usually wouldn’t
hang out with, on both ends.
We brought them together twice
this year. The first time we focused
on Graduation Matters Montana
and the legislation. It’s important to
get input from the people our policies
most directly affect. They had
an idea about making an across the
state ‘I pledge to graduate’ initiative.
We’ll kick that off in the fall.
The second meeting was about
school climate and bullying in
schools. We supported Kim Gillan’s
(D-Billings) anti-bullying policy
bill. Students from the advisory
board spoke on both of our bills.
How many staff do you have?
We have about 160 in the agency –
pretty small. About $9 million state
funds. We implement a lot of federal
programs as well, like No Child Left
Behind monitoring and distribution to
I am part of the national Council of
Chief State School Officers. Each state
varies in how they approach education,
and [my position] is different in other
states. [Many] are appointed by governors
or boards of education. This group
brings us together to talk about larger
policy issues. This meeting is an offspring of that
group. Rural states have unique challenges in our
schools – geography, travel, isolation.
What are the other challenges?
In addition to turning the lights on and paying
teachers, rural schools need busses and a bus barn
and other infrastructure and facilities that bigger
city schools have. Rural schools have all the same
needs, but enrollment is declining. There are no
kids. The population is getting older and smaller.
[At this conference], we discussed how things
work, and how we can do things more efficiently.
We’re reading about the ‘rural brain drain’. There
are leavers, stayers and returners… How do you
build infrastructure so those communities can still
be economically vibrant?
Was talking with other states valuable?
It’s important to understand what others are doing.
We’re all strapped for money, given the economics
of our country… But maybe we can coordinate
efforts, [for example, we could] pay less if we had a
common [student] assessment among us.
I recently recommended adoption of the Common
Core State Standards in English Language Arts and
Math to the Board of Public Education. These standards
are what students need to know, learn and
understand while they’re in school, [and they’re] higher than our current standards, more rigorous.
About 40 states have adopted these Common Core
standards, and our Board of Public Education is
moving toward adopting those as well.
Are there advantages for students in Montana?
Oh yes, especially at small schools in close knit
communities. I talk at a lot of commencements, and
go out to small communities where there may be
four graduates, but the gym is filled with everybody
from the community to celebrate their successes, including
teachers, family, grandparents. Montana is a
very special place, with all the great outdoor [activities].
I grew up in Browning, Montana and went to
school there. I moved away, but I always come back.
This conference also focused on Native American
Montana’s constitution recognizes the “distinct and
unique culture and heritage of American Indians”
and is committed to its educational goals to the
preservation of their culture and integrity. Montana
is the only state with that constitutional provision.
[Until recently] there had never been any funding
to implement that. The tribes have public schools,
and we work closely with them… Montana, like a
lot of the western states, has big achievement gaps
between American Indians and white students.
Is Governer Schweitzer pro-education?
Before Schweitzer, there was really a decline in
school funding. Since he’s been Governor, school
funding has increased. He has an education advisor
on staff that travels around. Schweitzer has [supported] K-12 and post-secondary education.
Do you like your job?
Every day there’s a new challenge, or there’s great
successes going out and watching our teachers do
what they do every day with students…. They pour
their lifeblood in to their work. It’s fun to watch kids
grasp a concept and just watch learning happening.
We have a great education system, and it’s fun to
watch all that play out.
The Council of Chief State School Officers
CCSSO is the parent organization for all of the state Secretaries
of Education, Commissioners of Education, and Public
Superintendents of Education.
In past CCSSO meetings, “The issues discussed centered mostly
on major, large populated states,” said Tom Oster (former
chief school state school officer for South Dakota). So, in 2010,
Oster worked with Supt. Juneau, and CSSOs from other rural
states to form a group of 11 rural states at the first meeting in
“We came up with several suggestions for improving No Child
Left Behind during the reauthorization of the Elementary and
Secondary Education Act, and we sent a letter to Secretary
Duncan (U.S. Secretary of Education) and to all of our congressional
delegation and our senators,” Oster said.
“We didn’t flip the world on its ear, but we felt like the folks
heard our concerns, and people started talking. Now, the
President [has] cabinet members working together on rural
issues, and the Department of Education designated a person
for rural issues.” Rural education now has more of a voice,