A program between Montana State University and Little Big Horn College designed to train American Indian educators on reservations to improve schools has received a $1.2 million grant.

The four-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education will enable MSU’s Indian Leadership Education and Development program, or I LEAD, to continue and expand the scope of its work.

Students from more states will be able to enroll in the program. In addition, the money will go toward a new Center for Indian Education Leadership in partnership with Little Big Horn College in Crow Agency.

The I LEAD program offers American Indian teachers an opportunity to earn a master’s degree in school administration 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.

Bill Ruff, an MSU education professor and the program’s administrator, said the I LEAD program is designed to address a pressing issue — achievement in underperforming schools.

“Native American school administration is very underrepresented in this region of the country,” Ruff said. “In addition, there has been a lot of turnover among school leaders on Native American reservations. We believe this turnover is contributing to an achievement gap. If we can facilitate the leadership development of educators who are already working in these communities, the chance of them staying in these communities is greater.”

Ruff added that most of the schools with high Native American student populations are in rural areas, where professional development training for teachers and administrators can be difficult to access.

Each summer, I LEAD students spend four weeks on the MSU campus in Bozeman. Throughout the rest of the year, I LEAD participants meet once a month as a group at a place locally accessible to students, such as Little Big Horn College. In between the monthly meetings, students complete course assignments via online methods.

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.

The grant covers a four-state region — Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota and Wyoming — and will provide funding for 40 students.

Sixty-eight students have graduated from the program so far, Ruff said. Of those graduates, 60 percent have been placed in school leadership positions within two years of graduation.

“It’s exciting to be a part of this program,” Ruff said. “It’s really creating change.”