COOLIDGE, Ariz. - One of the striking features of the Black-water Community
School on the Gila River Reservation is a large, colorful mural on the
exterior wall of a main building. The 10- by 30-foot painting depicts five
Pima/Maricopa children playing amid a rainbow in the desert below the
Sacaton Mountains, with tribal basket symbols, animals and birds all
The mural was painted two years ago as an enduring memorial to 3-year-old
Creay Mallow, who was unexpectedly stricken in 2002 with meningitis. The
boy's family painted the wall for the Pima preschoolers and their families
who will be participants in Family and Child Education (FACE), an
innovative BIA-supported early childhood education program. The FACE
program directly connects parents in meaningful learning experiences with
their own kids.
Creay Mallow's mother, Melissa, was heartbroken. She stated the names of
each of her five children and lovingly described their personalities as
well as their school strengths, paying special tribute to Creay. Another
son was diagnosed with a learning disability, and she found the care he
needed only at the Blackwater Community School. The school rallied to her
She had her share of challenges, struggling to raise the children while
attending a nearby college. She's been described by school administrator
Jacquelyn Power as an attentive parent who is deeply involved in school
"She will soon become a certified child development associate and complete
the cycle of being a student here ... [then] parent, and finally a staff
member," noted Power.
Melissa is just one of a number of parents enrolled in the FACE program
because of the opportunity for hands-on assistance with the early
socialization and schooling of their own babies and toddlers. There's a
feeling that a school will do it right if a parent is brought into the
classroom and taught the technical strategies of reading readiness,
language arts and math mastery. Slogans like "parents are the first
educators" resonate throughout the school.
The FACE program is a BIA school pilot experiment designed to involve
parents with preschool Native children, according to Debbie Lente-Jojola,
Bureau FACE coordinator. FACE was the 1991 brainchild of William Mehojah
and Dixie Owens, who both wanted to do something bold and significant about
low student academic achievement.
Armed with research that revealed failing students can be traced all the
way back to problems with early language delays, FACE was created. In fact,
the Head Start program was created 25 years earlier with the same mandate:
to give low-income children an even chance by preparing them with
foundation developmental work before they start kindergarten.
The Blackwater Community School was a pioneer in the FACE movement.
Originally opened in 1939 as a BIA day school, the tribe took over
ownership and operation of the school in 1992. With 227 students, the
school features the preschool and a K - 4 program.
The school has registered its acclaim to greatness. Power, a 12-year
employee who once served as the director of FACE, was selected in 2002 by
the BIA Office of Indian Education Programs (OIEP) as "Principal of the
Year." The National Indian School Board Association in 2002 selected its
"National School Board of the Year" from Blackwater.
The Blackwater FACE program is currently administered by Gwendolyn Paul,
who was named in 2001 by Toyota Motors as its first American Indian "Family
Literacy Teacher of the Year." Paul, in her 14th year in FACE, has taken
the program in new directions. She most fears the loss of the Pima/Maricopa
traditional way of life.
"Our culture and language is dying on the reservation [and] I've emphasized
instruction in Pima language and in old stories from the elders," stated
Paul. She described novel strategies used to preserve the tribe's heritage
through the FACE program, while emphasizing instruction in English language
Knowing that languages are best learned during infancy, Paul and her staff
conduct lessons with infants and toddlers in numbers, colors, patterns and
animals in the Pima language using mnemonics like familiar nursery rhyme
music and chants. Paul is teaching the parents, too, because FACE is about
Teaching tribal songs, history, stories and dances to preschool kids and
parents is a way the tribe can resist the creeping metropolis of Phoenix
from swallowing up the reservation.
The tribe once consisted of numerous O'otham farming villages scattered
along the Gila River. "We are known as Akimel O'otham, or the 'river
people,'" stated Paul as she reflected upon the theft of the tribe's land,
"and our river was known to us as Keli Akimel, or 'old man river.'"
The next day, Richard Narcia, governor of the Gila River tribe, declared to
tribal members assembled at a school celebration that the tribe had won a
major legislative victory that returned significant water rights to them to
replenish their abandoned fields.
"On Dec. 10 , Gila River received the largest Indian water settlement
in the history of the United States," Narcia reported.
"It took us 100 years to get it back," he continued with a broad smile,
"but we are the Akimel O'otham and Pee Posh - we've always been a river
people and a farming people."
Narcia looked down at the young Pima and Maricopa children assembled near
his feet and smiled. He spoke glowingly about the future and about the
paths ahead. But there are challenges, too.