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Nurturing tomorrow’s leaders: Early childhood education

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – The Shinnecock Indian Nation has big plans for its littlest members. The 1,500-member tribe has almost completed a feasibility study for a $2.3 million early childhood education center on its reservation in Southampton.

The purpose of the facility and the programs it will house, said Andrea Godoy, director of the Shinnecock Early Learning/Day Care Center Planning Project, “is to give our future leaders the kind of nurturing they need.” A secondary goal “is to nurture our people by having a source of good jobs on the reservation. We can tell kids they can go to high school and on to higher education then come home and work on the reservation.”

Transitioning children from the reservation to off-reservation schools successfully has presented challenges in the past. “We recognize our kids have struggled in off-reservation schools,” Godoy said. A solid preschool education using “a broad-based cultural approach will help kids overcome some of the hurdles they face.” The academic and other standards at the center, such as teacher/child ratios, Godoy said, will exceed state requirements.

“We have relevant data supporting children’s gains, and our children are growing and learning. They are much more excited about reading and books.” – Rebecca Kreth, program manager for Puyallup Tribe’s Grandview Early Learning Center, Chief Leschi School and the Tacoma Public Schools

A $20,000 one-year planning grant for the feasibility study came from a private source, the New Hampshire-based Gerald and Janet Carrus Foundation. The next step is to find funding for the project.

“We’re looking at everything, private donations, grants, government funding, state funding,” Godoy said. The tribe’s main source of revenue is its annual pow wow, which it’s hoping to expand.

If everything goes well, and if tribal leadership and the people themselves decide the project should go forward, Godoy hopes to break ground in the fall; if that goal is met, then the center could open as soon as the fall of 2010.

Godoy said the tribe expects to have 50 to 80 children, ages 6 weeks to 5 years, at the center in the first year. “We want to make the center available to any parent who needs care for their children, whether they are working or going to school or have other reasons for needing child care. We intend to be as flexible as possible, to encourage parents to be involved, and to support parents in meeting their own goals.”

Robert Cook, president of the National Indian Education Association, said parental involvement in early education is key. Many programs, he said, have a strong adult education component. Parents can take courses, or work toward getting a GED.

“When our kids went to head start, we went over and helped out. It was really good for parents to be involved.”

Cook’s involvement went to the heart of the matter. His tribe, “the Oglala Lakota, realized language is in a critical situation. We could lose the language in the next several years. We partnered with head start to create a language program. The development of language skills and vocabulary, whether indigenous or English, is critical in the academic development of children.”

Cook said the association strongly supports early childhood education and tribal control. “The position of NIEA is that early childhood education is critical, academically, socially, emotionally, physically and spiritually. NIEA advocates at the national level for tribes to be empowered to run their own programs.”

Some tribes are able to design and support early childhood education centers. “Sometimes tribes that have gaming can step beyond funding concerns and build their own centers. The Forest County Potawatomi have built a model program with a beautiful building and have created an endowment to sustain it.”

He said despite treaty rights that guarantee tribes educational equity, lack of funding is often the main impediment to establishing early childhood programs. “Indian head start is run by the U.S. Health and Human Services Department; NIEA advocates that programs should be well-funded, but the Indian head start program is not funded to the level that it should be.

“For example, head start programs can be housed in leftover buildings that are not necessarily the best places for children to learn and that sometimes have problems with ventilation and other systems. So kids – and teachers – get sick more than they should,” Cook said.


Photo courtesy Andrea Godoy, director/Shinnecock Early Learning/Day Care Center Planning Project Shinnecock tribal leaders visited several Indian early childhood education centers during the planning stages of the project. From left, are Braulio Santiago, Coriene Northup and Andrea Godoy at Mashantucket Pequot Child Development Center.

He explained that getting federal grants, such as those offered through the administration for Native Americans at HHS, is an extremely competitive endeavor that requires a lot of paperwork and follow-up. With 562 tribes, thousands of programs are competing for hundreds of grants. Tribes must have someone in place to write the grant applications, which is a very time-consuming process. And oftentimes tribes must compete not only against other tribes but also against states.

Cook said some tribes are not ready to apply for federal stimulus funds, so they will not receive any of that money. “The different federal agencies must provide technical assistance for tribes. And we were disappointed that no stimulus money was made available for public schools on Indian reservations.”

The need for construction, repair and maintenance dollars for Indian educational facilities is huge, he said. Tribal schools have a $1 billion backlog in facilities needs, “so we cannot receive stimulus funds and then have the federal government say that we don’t need funding in the regular budget.”

Rebecca Kreth is program manager for an Office of Indian Education demonstration project that provides services to 3- and 4-year-old American Indian and Alaska Native children attending the Puyallup Tribe’s Grandview Early Learning Center, Chief Leschi School and the Tacoma Public Schools. The grant-funded program is focused on helping young children achieve gains in language and literacy, cognitive and conceptual knowledge, and social and emotional development.

The project brings storytellers and storybooks by Native authors to the children and their families. Project staff create enhanced curriculum materials and activities around those stories. Staff work in the classroom every week using these “exploration kits” to encourage early learning. So far, 13 kits have been created. “We have researched and found many Native authors, and include storybooks from many tribal nations,” said Kreth, “but we focus mostly on Northwest Coast, Puget Sound cultures.” Among the storytellers the program has worked with are Gene Tagaban, Elaine Grinnell, Roger Fernandez and Marvin Hannah.

“We have relevant data supporting children’s gains, and our children are growing and learning. They are much more excited about reading and books.”

Exposure to reading and language are the most accurate predictors of school success, and the Native American leaders planning and running early childhood education programs are clearly using that information in their schools and centers.