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Oglala Sioux Head Start to re-open

PINE RIDGE, S.D. - A government rule that closed the Head Start program on the Pine Ridge Reservation has been resolved and the program is set to re-open in February.

This past summer nearly 150 people were terminated from the Head Start program because the federal Early Childhood Development Department determined that the reservation program did not make the appropriate changes that would meet federal requirements. The program, that educated 533 children, was declared out of compliance.

But all is not lost for those employees. They will be invited to interview for their former positions, and some will be re-hired. The employees will be required to have a Child Development Associate certificate and an Associate of Arts degree.

George Ghost Bear, chairman of the education committee, told the gathering outside the tribal offices that he at first understood the administration of the Head Start program would be reorganized, and some people will be re-hired

"There is a new personnel director and we will get a hold of everyone and start interviewing," Ghost Bear said.

Also the former employees received a retroactive 3.5 percent cost of living increase check for work performed during 2003.

In the interim, Laura Shad, a federal Head Start employee, took over the OST Head Start and hired a few employees.

A group of former employees, parents and students marched on the tribal offices Jan. 14 to get answers from tribal officials. Their anger stemmed from the fact that the same requirements the program was shut down for were also violated with the interim management team made up of federal officials.

Many who were hired, protesters complained, were not qualified under the rules. Another complaint was the fact that people who were related or married were hired.

On a reservation with 80 percent unemployment it was difficult to not put the issue in the category of jobs lost. Most of those who were terminated remained outside the job market.

Parents were more inclined to wonder about the education of their Head Start-age children. In the village of Pine Ridge some 27 employees were out of work. A few returned to their jobs, but still no children came to the school.

It was discovered that asbestos was exposed in the facility and children could not enter. The building is now in the remodeling process.

A sticking point in the argument is the fact that those hired as interim teachers and employees may not have met all the requirements, while those who were qualified by experience and nearly by education were rejected, Ghost Bear said.

"They said we could reapply, but none of us were hired," Lema Martin Apple, long-time Head Start teacher stated.

Martin Apple will receive an AA degree in June, as will many of the former employees.

Ghost Bear said those who will be rehired as teachers will be required to sign a contract that guarantees the person will receive an AA degree within a certain amount of time.

There is a lot of miscommunication, enough to go around for everyone, it seems, Ghost Bear said. He was unaware that the reduction in force would extend deeper than just a reorganization of the administration.

While confronting the group in front of the tribal offices, Ghost Bear was in agreement with most of what the crowd said.

"We received the letter in June that the federal government would cease all financial support because we were out of compliance.

"In July I told the (tribal) council that the administration staff would be reorganized, I didn't know D.C. meant the support staff also."

Federal program officials will return to Pine Ridge for further meetings.

Ghost Bear said the program had been out of compliance over the past decade, and it was never addressed. The federal government had threatened to contract out the program, but Senators Tom Daschle, D-S.D. and Tim Johnson, D-S.D. intervened and saved the program for a short time.

Ghost Bear said the personnel board hired the interim teachers; he didn't sit in on the interviews. He also told the group that a new personnel director will be in charge of the new interview process.

It was obvious to the gathering that different stories were circulated. Duane Martin, organizer of the rally, said it would be important for the OST administration to include the public in meetings with the federal officials and tribal officials in order to get the correct information.

Ghost Bear said everyone would be notified about future meetings.