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Native American Alumni Making a Difference: Superintendent Denise Juneau

Head Start alumni come from many walks of life; a great many of them from families who value education and the importance of early learning. This was the case for Denise Juneau, Montana’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction, a former teacher and the first American Indian woman to be elected to statewide executive office.

A member of the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes, Denise was born in Oakland, California, where her parents met during Relocation - a federal program that moved American Indians to cities for job opportunities. When she was two years old her family left for Billings, Montana so her parents could attend Eastern Montana College.

“We lived on student aid and my father attended college and held down a couple of jobs for added support,” Denise recalled recently in an interview with NHSA. “In 1972 I began the Head Start program; afterwards I transferred directly to first grade because the school system did not offer kindergarten at that time. I remember my transition going pretty smoothly, so Head Start must have worked for me!”

Superintendent Juneau has gone on to build a successful career in education and politics (along with her mother, who was elected as a Montana state senator). Her teaching career began in New Town, North Dakota on the Fort Berthold Reservation where she taught English to 9th and 10th graders.

Since 2008, when she was elected superintendent, she has worked relentlessly to provide high quality education to all Montana students. The accomplishment she is most proud of is her Graduation Matters Montana initiative that has successfully increased the state’s high school graduation rate from 80.7 percent to 84.4 percent. In collaboration with 42 communities, businesses and grassroots organizations, the initiative has successfully impacted scores of students who otherwise might never have graduated.

Superintendent Juneau believes that family and community engagement is critical, especially for the Native American community. “You have to get families involved,” she said, “which is also the strength of the Head Start model.” When she visits with teachers on reservations she reminds them that if they want successful outcomes they must engage the family and be ready to address many needs, especially those related to poverty.

“The saying ‘I got my start at Head Start’ is very appropriate for my career,” she said. “I believe in early childhood education and know that it provides a good start for so many students. I am a beneficiary of a quality early Head Start program and it has made all the difference. I look forward to seeing us continue to support Head Start in Montana; hopefully we can help to expand their programs and services well into the future.”