As the daughter of two teachers, Denise Juneau, Ed.M.’94, was instilled with the value of education at an early age. “My parents told me that education was the path to success,” she recalled while speaking at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in September. And by following that path, Juneau has attained tremendous achievements, demonstrating the truth in her parents’ words. From Head Start, to high school, to HGSE, to law school, Juneau had a hunger for knowledge and an appreciation of education. Beginning her career teaching on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota, Juneau now holds public office as Montana’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction, making her the first Native American woman in history to win a statewide election and giving her an opportunity to improve education and achievement throughout the state. Since she took office in 2008, Juneau has not only established new learning standards in English and math that have improved statewide test scores, but she has also fought a growing high school dropout trend through her initiative, Graduation Matters Montana. Now, four years later, Juneau is running for re-election, with the hope of continuing these successes and using the realm of education to give Montana a brighter future. “Essential to my [academic] success were the teachers who invested their time and talent in me,” Juneau told the audience at the DNC. “And now, I have an opportunity to be an advocate for all of our state’s children.”
What was being on stage at the Democratic National Convention like? Speaking at the DNC was a remarkable experience and one that will stand out as a milestone in my life. Speaking in front of tens of thousands of people is not a run-of-the-mill activity. To be asked to speak at the DNC was quite the honor and very humbling; especially knowing the luminaries who would be on stage throughout the convention. The preparation that went into that six-minute speech was tremendous, but nothing prepared me for the moment of actually walking on the stage to deliver the speech. Hearing and seeing the Montana delegation helped ease my nerves — just a bit.
What is a typical day for the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, or is there such a thing? I love the diversity of my job, and there really isn’t a “typical day.” Montana is a large state, and our public education system is very diverse. Our largest school district educates more than 16,000 students, and we still have one-room schoolhouses. Forty-six out of Montana's 56 counties are considered "frontier counties" with an average population of six or fewer people per square mile. The density of the state is 6.8 people per square mile. I travel often and do site visits at schools, which allows me to engage with teachers, administrators, and students to hear about their day-do-day work and understand how policies and innovative practices are being implemented in local schools. I also oversee about 200 employees at our state education agency, and we are in the midst of major initiatives and reforms. Finally, I meet regularly with diverse stakeholders such as educational organizations, business leaders, our partners in higher education, and other state agencies to find ways we can all work together to help support students.
What is your greatest accomplishment in Montana so far? Engaging schools, community partners, and businesses from across the state in my initiative to improve our graduation rates and ensure students are prepared for college and careers, Graduation Matters Montana. Sixty-five percent of students in Montana now go to a school with a Graduation Matters initiative, and we are already seeing the results of this statewide focus on graduation — our dropout rates are down. I'm very proud that communities and schools have been willing to join me in this effort. Knowing the impact that we are having together on students’ lives and their opportunities for future success is very exciting.
What are some major obstacles facing public education that concern you? I believe the greatest issue facing education today is the changing demands of our economy. For the vast majority of our students, a high school diploma isn't going to be enough to land a good-paying job. Students are going to need education and skills-training beyond high school. Our K–12 education system must provide every student with the knowledge and skills they need to step into 21st-century jobs so they have a shot at a successful future.
I'm also highly concerned about maintaining a quality public education system. Public education is the great equalizer. It is open to everyone, no matter who you are or where you come from. The national rhetoric against public school teachers and public education and the efforts underway to siphon public dollars away from public schools to private schools and corporations is very concerning. Public schools in Montana are performing very well, and where we do have challenges, we work in partnership with our schools and communities to confront those challenges. We need to continue to invest in our public education system so we can deliver a high-quality public education to every student.
What’s it like to be back on the campaign trail? The superintendent of public instruction is one of five statewide constitutional elected offices in Montana. Given that Montana is a huge state and our citizens expect to meet the candidates, campaigning consists of a lot of travel. I have put tens of thousands of miles on my car. I have had to learn how to get my message out to voters in a quick television interview or speech, make fundraising phone calls, and how to use Twitter. I went door to door with legislative candidates for this first time this election, which has been a fun experience. I get to meet so many different people and hear about their hopes for their children and grandchildren and the future of this state. Being the superintendent has been a great honor, and I hope I have the opportunity to continue the work I've started over the past four years.
What is the first thing you plan to do if re-elected? The 2013 legislative session is just around the corner, and I already have legislation that I want to move forward that is being drafted. I will begin meeting with education advocacy groups and legislators to advocate for school funding and good education policy. For fun, I have a trip planned to New York City.