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Grant Aims to Boost Early-Childhood Education for Native Americans

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Monday, October 11, 2021   

TUCSON, Ariz. - Tribal colleges and universities in Arizona and across the nation are teaching the next generation of pre-K and elementary-school educators ways to incorporate native languages and culture into their lesson plans.

A new grant to the American Indian College Fund will help educators expand their curricula. Emily White Hat, the College Fund's
vice president for programs, said access to schooling that includes traditional, indigenous knowledge greatly improves education outcomes for students.

"It really supports their identity," she said. "It helps them be confident in who they are. It connects them to relatives in the community. It just provides this broader world view."

Diné College in the Navajo Nation and Tohono O'odham Community College west of Tucson both offer early-childhood education courses and will be eligible for funds from a $5.3 million, four-year Bezos Family Foundation grant.

White Hat said the program's goal is to revise curriculum to be more culturally relevant and support degree attainment for teachers. For example, students explore native housing structures in their Science, Technology, Engineering and Math classes, in a course now known as "wigwam-etry." Educators also engage parents in their child's education through activities like family nights on campus, where parents also get a taste of the tribal college experience.

"The hope, too," she said, "is that we may bring parents who had not thought about college as an option into a place where they may feel like, 'Oh, I could do this.'"

White Hat also sees the program as a way for families and entire communities to heal from the ongoing trauma caused when Native children were removed from their homes for forced assimilation into white culture at boarding schools.

"Supporting the development of new teachers in the classrooms of our tribal communities is fundamental to the visibility of native people," she said.

At least a half-dozen Indian boarding schools were operated in Arizona, beginning in the 1870s. The last school was closed in 1990.


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