HOLBROOK, Ariz. - Thirty-three miles north of Interstate 40, on State Route 77, a revolution in early childhood development is taking place at Indian Wells Elementary School.
The progress of the revolution can be measured by a three-year-old's ability to make friends. Or a four-year-old's desire to help clean up the classroom after an activity. Or a kindergartener's ability to tell uppercase letters from lowercase, and maybe even to write a paragraph before she hits first grade.
The leaders of the revolution are plain spoken locals from Holbrook to Window Rock with names such as Trina, Debbie, Melody, Jeri and Lamont. Most are on summer break now, recharging their batteries after completing the fifth year of a preschool program that has exceeded their expectations.
These educators say their power to transform young lives comes from parents who may not have known the benefits of an early childhood educational focus when they were in school. Today those parents insist that their kids receive excellent academic instruction reinforced by a strong Native American cultural identity. It is a revolution calling for enhanced preschool learning that is taking place across the United States.
But that is not without its challenges in northern Arizona. The 1,571 square miles of land the Holbrook Unified School District serves resembles a giant block-letter "I" running north and south of the Interstate. If one divides the land equally, each student in the district would get nearly a square mile.
Buses roll for 300-plus miles each school day between Holbrook, Indian Wells, Ganado, Teesto, White Cone, Greasewood and Dilkon. They bring pre-kindergarten kids to school and - for many - to their first opportunity to interact with people other than family.
"Our program is designed to get kids ready for kindergarten," said Indian Wells Principal Dr. Jeri McKinnon.
McKinnon witnessed the construction of the school she now leads when she was a Holbrook elementary school teacher in the late 1990s.
"When we began the preschool in the 2008/2009 school year we had only one teacher and two classes of three- and four-year-olds. We had a lot of children on a waiting list." In the following years administrators added more classes, teachers and curriculum for special-needs kids. Still, there remains a waiting list. "In my first year I made the mistake of having a little preschool graduation," laughs Katrina (Trina) Garner, the preschool program's first teacher. "We had 18 little children graduating and over 100 people there. The whole clan comes out. The next year we had over 300 people, and it grows every year."
Garner taught preschool for three years and for the last two has taught kindergarten. She says she is proud of the program that began with only her, and which will expand again in the 2014/2015 school year. With the addition of two more classrooms during the coming year, McKinnon said the program will have the capacity to teach 100 to 125 preschool students each year, or about one fifth of the 525 students who attend Indian Wells. Melody Myers recently completed her second year teaching preschoolers at Indian Wells, including special needs children.
"When they come in as three-year-olds they are still kind of like babies," she said. "They don't have a lot of language. Some of them are pretty shy. A lot haven't been around other kids very much. By the time they get to the end of the year they recognize their own names in writing, know several letters of the alphabet, can count to ten, talk, answer questions, ask questions, and know the procedures of the classroom."
In addition to a strong emphasis on academics such as math, english and spelling, Myers says a classroom aide is employed to encourage the students - 100 percent of whom are Navajo - to sing songs in their native language and to learn its alphabet and traditions.
"We even present a program at the end of the year that is in Navajo as well as English," she said. The rub between academics and native culture has been evident in recent years with the rise of the Indian Wells program and at the same time the down-sizing of Navajo Head Start, an early childhood development program headquartered in Window Rock that is paid for with federal money. The program covers Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. In addition to her job instructing three- and four-year-olds at Indian Wells, Myers teaches special ed one day each week at Head Start programs in White Cone and Greasewood. She said she believes that already declining Head Start numbers on the reservation were one reason for launching the Indian Wells preschool program in the first place.
"I don't feel we compete with Head Start," she said. "I feel we work as a team." Dr. Lamont Yazzie, director of educational services for Navajo Head Start, agrees with Myers . He said the congressional Head Start Act of 2007 has helped to change his program's mission.
"Historically, we had a child development emphasis that focused on social, emotional, physical and language learning," he said. "By the start of the new school year we will have added cognition content, meaning academics, as a requirement in our early childhood development."
Yazzie said the goal is "seamless transition" for students who may begin their formal education in a Head Start program, then continue on to what he termed "feeder schools" such as Indian Wells, and on up through grade 12. "It's quite exciting," he said. "Now we are going to engage students at the pre-K level and their families with academics such as math, science, literature, social studies and the arts." Kindergarten teacher Debbie Wehrman, who once taught school in New Zealand and who for the past eight years has taught at Indian Wells, applauds such thinking.
"It would be nice if we could be a bit more integrated on both ends," she said. "Academics is paramount. It is also very important to maintain an identity within your culture. There is a place for both."
She describes an annual event known as Transition Day in which Head Start teachers, students and parents tour Indian Wells Elementary so that parents may make an informed decision about where to send their kids.
"Our program really works," she said. "I think kids are getting prepared for what's ahead of them." On a recent Thursday afternoon in late June, kindergarten teacher Trina Garner was already in her classroom, getting ready for the coming school year.
"There was a Head Start program just up the hill that shut down last year," she said. "Not enough students. A lot of parents tell me that they will teach culture at home. Like any parent, they want their child to have a good education. There are plenty of little children out there, and we're planning to expand our preschool. I can see it continuing to grow."
McKinnon said the school hires certified teachers that are licensed to teach preschool, with early childhood endorsements.
"They are highly qualified," she said. "They work closely with our kindergarten teachers so they know what students need to have in place when they start kindergarten. Our kindergarten teachers have noticed the difference since we started the preschool. The kids can start where they need to start. There 's no need to teach early skills such as letters and numbers. A lot of the kids leave kindergarten starting to read. And our preschoolers not only learn to love school, they acclimate to the school environment. They can sit for longer periods of time, take turns, listen, and be well-rounded."