Navajo Nation Head Start gets new life after passing federal review

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. - The Navajo Nation Head Start (NHS) program has, for the first time in two decades, passed a federal review and is in full compliance with strict federal mandates for the program.

Because of the successful review the Navajo Head Start program can get a five-year non-competitive grant award from the Administration of Children and Families estimated at $125 million.

"The Navajo Nation was on the verge of losing Head Start after years of non-compliance," said Sharon Henderson-Singer, who is the assistant superintendent of the Head Start program. "There was a major need of reform to bring the Head Start program into compliance."

Additionally, NHS can now expand its services and educational opportunities and further develop and streamline its processes. The successful review makes the program eligible for additional funding to benefit Navajo children, Singer said.

Navajo Head Start had struggled to fill vacant positions with qualified people and bring programs into compliance. In 2006, the federal government revoked funding and threatened to shut down the program because of non-compliance with federal regulations.

Singer said she was aware that if NHS did not comply with federal mandates that the children were not the only ones who would suffer, all NHS staff -administrators, teachers, cooks and bus drivers - would also lose their jobs.

"The process of rebuilding the program was met with resistance at times by the public and leadership," Henderson-Singer said. "Nevertheless, staff had to perservere through those challenges."

She acknowledged that the reform effort that went on for years was a true collaboration between the NHS leadership team, staff, the Navajo Nation Council's Health Education and Human Service Committee (HEHSC), the Navajo Board of Education and the NHS parent policy council. She said without staff and leaders who realized that higher standards and higher expectations needed to be set so that Navajo children and their families would receive learning experiences that would benefit them for a lifetime, the change could not have happened.

"I am hopeful that the naysayers have gained an understanding of what is needed to ensure the NHS grant is not terminated and children are provided the best services possible," Henderson-Singer said.

The federal review examined the program's management systems and policies and observed classroom instruction and health and safety compliance. Twenty Head Start centers were visited at random from May 5-9 for the review. During this review, NHS met 2,800 federal requirements, including the Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act of 2007, which established a Sept. 30, 2013 deadline requiring all Head Start agencies to employ a highly qualified workforce.

For Navajo Head Start, a highly qualified workforce means that all staff who work with children must have a Child Development Associate credential at a minimum. All teachers must have an associate's degree and must be enrolled in a major with coursework related to early childhood education. Teacher's assistants and cooks are required to have a minimum of 24 credit hours toward an associate's degree and be enrolled in a program leading to an associate or baccalaureate degree.

"There is an on-going effort within the NHS to make sure that staff entrusted with a Navajo child's development and wellbeing are well qualified and are committed to their growth," Henderson-Singer said.

The Health, Education and Human Services committee, which oversees the Navajo Head Start program, commended the program for successfully passing the comprehensive review. HEHSC chair Council Delegate Jonathan Hale called the announcement a "remarkable accomplishment" for the program and the Navajo Nation, while he also urged the continued improvement of the program.

"Looking ahead, we must address systematic issues within our government and continue to develop solutions to maintain the Navajo Head Start program for future generations," Hale said.

HEHSC member Council Delegate Johua Lavar Butler also expressed his appreciation for NHS staff and the program saying that the news was well-received by the Navajo Nation.

"I am very thankful the Nation was able to save a program that is vital to the needs of our young people," Butler said. "The program was at the verge of collapse and at risk was hundreds of millions of dollars being reverted back to the federal government. At the end of the day, we have to be reminded this program is for the children."

Henderson-Singer said there is still work to be done to improve NHS services and open more centers.

"The NHS must continue to build upon the progress made over the last two years to bring the program into compliance," Henderson-Singer said. "Termination of the NHS grant for any reason is not an option."

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