Education professor applies for $1 million federal grant

Sam Banks

Funds would help train principles in Native American education

The NMU School of Education has applied for a grant to develop a new program to educate American Indian and Alaska Native school administrators through an online graduate degree program.

NMU School of Education professor Judith Puncochar is the lead author in the grant project working with Native American Studies professor Marty Reinhardt — who came up with the title Project Revitalizing Indian Education Leadership (R.I.E.L.) — as well as April Lindala, director for the Center, and Erica Franich, director of grants and research, who came up with the grant budget.

Project R.I.E.L. is Puncochar’s first experience as a grant’s lead author, having only acted as a grant evaluator in the past. She was given three weeks to write and send in the 35-page grant request that asks for $1.05 million of $2.5 million in funds from the U.S. Department of Education that grant writers across the country are competing for.

“I barely slept,” Puncochar said. “You want to send it in a day early because if you miss the deadline by one second you don’t get in.”

The grant is being applied to for funds that will support Project R.I.E.L., which will create an online consortium of 18 American Indian school principals dubbed “fellows” who will graduate with a Master’s Degree in Educational Administration with an American Indian Education emphasis and a certification as a K-12 principal.

“The number of Native American students in schools is going up but the test scores are not,” Puncochar said. “This will be different than just K-12 American Indian education — we’re talking about the leaders.”

The program will provide training for the fellows that will give them the ability to create a lasting impact on improved cultural and academic achievement of American Indian and Alaska Native students according to the Project R.I.E.L. Abstract.

“We want to create this cohort of Native American educators,” Puncochar said. “That’s really our vision for Project R.I.E.L.”

The fellows’ first year would begin with them taking online classes, which would eventually lead to research, collecting data, doing internships and the writing of research projects with the objective of publishing their research in an education journal.

“The certification of the schools are through the  Bureau of Indian Education and the states,” Puncochar said. “People are trying really hard to get high quality teachers and administrators and really do everything they possibly can to support student learning.”

The third year is expected to be Project R.I.E.L. induction year, where they would pay back the grant money spent on their education by taking the position of principal in schools with a large population of American Indian students.

“I believe this grant is sustainable and the program will continue even when the grant dries up,” Puncochar said. “But it’s really important to get the word out to the Native American communities that we’ve got this program up here and it’s all online.”

Puncochar recently published an article in the Education Leadership Review in which she presents a model that she plans to apply to Project R.I.E.L. She said the model will help leaders problem solve at their schools while keeping the values and the culture of their schools.

“The key to the grant is we are going to graduate these highly qualified leaders with master’s degrees,” Puncochar said. “But the indication that we’ve been successful will be that they will influence student learning in a positive direction when they are in the field.”

Lindala said the Indian community faces disparities in economics, education and health and some of these disparities can be addressed through administrative and curriculum reform.

“This multi-year project will give these graduate students the skills, tools and mentor connections to implement such reform,” Lindala said. “And possibly introduce culturally inclusive themes into the curriculum as well as reinforce curriculum that is already in place.”

Lindala believes that the grant will make principals better leaders in their schools and will open doors to a better education system for the schools that it will directly impact, and may also have the potential to be a model program for other communities.

Puncochar said she should know if the grant is approved or not by Monday, July 1. If approved the program would be available in the fall of 2014.

“You don’t have to have a teaching certificate to be a principal,” Puncochar said. “You have to be a good leader, know about finance and have good communication skills to bridge the gap between the students, teachers and parents.”