Pine Ridge Head Start program begins

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It will be a great day for hundreds of young children on the Pine Ridge
Reservation when the Head Start programs finally get under way.

Closed for more than six months by the U.S. Department of Health Services
Head Start Bureau, the Oglala Sioux Tribe has struggled with ideas about
what to do with the program. Financial woes, non-compliance with federal
standards and poorly maintained facilities have been problems for more than
a decade.

The Head Start Bureau intervened when violations were not resolved and
closed the program down two years ago; and again this past spring.

The Oglala Sioux Tribal Council, after much debate and attempts to deal
with the issue, handed the task of running the program over to Oglala
Lakota College. The 26 schools across the reservation opened Oct. 3.

OLC President Tom Shortbull said the college received a grant of nearly $5
million from the federal Head Start program. The grant will be renewable
every year. The funding will be used to hire teachers, aides and
administrators, but will not be used for building updates.

"Some facilities just meet minimal requirements," he said. Two facilities
need replacement. A new facility will be finished soon at Porcupine in the
middle of the reservation.

Shortbull said he appreciated the confidence the tribe has shown in the
college by turning the responsibility over to OLC.

There will be 148 teachers, aides and support staff; of that number, 70
percent are former employees that were laid off six months ago. The staff
began work before the grant was official to prepare for the students.

Several tribal schools on Pine Ridge expressed a desire to take over Head
Start programs in their districts, but the Head Start Bureau financial
requirements would not fit with that arrangement.

Head Start has been a priority since the beginning of President Cecilia
Fire Thunder's administration, said Emma Featherman-Sam of the OST
Department of Transportation, who represented Fire Thunder at a press
conference.

On congratulating OLC on the grant approval, she said the college was the
most capable organization to handle the educational program.

Since the college is chartered by the tribe, Featherman Sam said, a
requirement is to submit financial accountability to the tribe.

Before the buildings fill with youngsters, the staff and faculty will
undergo training, Shawna Runnells-Pourier, OLC Head Start director, said.

"The past years have been a struggle. Now people have to get used to OLC,"
she said.

Runnells-Pourier has worked with early childhood development at the college
for more than five years as head of that department. She also has worked
with the OST Head Start program in the past in her capacity at the college.

OLC will set up programs that follow the Head Start program standards, she
said. A suggestion from Oglala tribal members was to create language
immersion schools. Shortbull said that possibly two facilities would be
converted to the language immersion in the future.

Because OLC will manage Head Start, staff and faculty will have the
advantage of training at the college. Shortbull said it will be easy for
the staff to acquire degrees that lead to teacher certification through the
college.

"There is a good incentive to move toward degrees. The challenge will be to
restore confidence in the program," he said.

The college will maintain financial accountability, a requirement of the
board of directors, Shortbull said.

The problems with the Oglala Sioux Tribe's Head Start program go back
several years. The program operated out of compliance with the federal
guidelines for some 13 years.

The Head Start Bureau gave the tribe an ultimatum to either comply with
regulations within one year or be shut down. Many on the tribal council
said they believed the tribe complied, but there were many teachers who did
not meet certification standards, which require either certification or
academic work that moved toward certification.

None of the centers when visited by the Head Start Bureau team had a
developed curriculum; and of 37 teachers who were required to receive
associate degrees, only three complied. Other incidents involved
unprofessional behavior on the part of some staff members while in the
presence of the children.

In the summer of 2003, some 150 employees were fired when the Head Start
Bureau took over the program and hired local residents to work at the
schools. The council chambers and the office of the president, at the time
John Yellow Bird Steele, were filled with angry teachers and parents.

The tribe used general fund money to keep Head Start going the year before
the takeover.

Many suggestions were tossed around, such as starting a program based on
traditional Oglala values and separate from the federal government's
funding or guidelines. Staff and faculty were hired in December of 2003 for
a January 2004 opening.

The entire program was shut down in April 2005.