Head Start has week and half to comply with federal mandates

By Antonio Ramirez
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, Sept. 19, 2013

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The deadline for Navajo Head Start to comply with strict federal requirements is only a week and a half away.

The fundamental goal behind Head Start is securing the first stepping-stone in a child's path through the educational system.

In this effort the standards of operation for these programs have been made more demanding than ever.

The Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act of 2007 established a deadline of Sept. 30, 2013 requiring all Head Start agencies, including Navajo Head Start, to employ a highly qualified workforce.

Last week the Health, Education, and Human Services Committee requested NHS to give a program update regarding how the law defines a highly qualified workforce and how it influenced the recent employee re-assignments, layoffs, and new hires. The chief concern is the layoffs.

Overall, 30 teaching positions, including teachers and teacher assistants, are set to be vacant by end of this month; 16 cooking positions will be open as well.

In the Tuba City region there are 12 scheduled terminations for lack of credentials - five teachers and seven teacher assistants.

Delegate Joshua Lavar Butler (To'Nanees'Dizi) said that while he maintains sympathy for his constituents, NHS must not be put in jeopardy by remaining non-compliant with federal requirements.

"There are some changes that need to come down. They may be drastic changes, but they need to happen," Butler said.

NHS Assistant Superintendent Sharon Singer said, "It's not just about firing. It's about having a higher standard, having higher expectations, and having a higher quality of services for our children and their families. There's a lack of understanding about the things we are doing."

By the federally mandated deadline, all teacher assistants must have a Child Development Associate credential, with a minimum of 24 credit hours towards an associate degree, and be enrolled in a program leading to an associate or baccalaureate degree to meet NHS program requirements.

Any NHS teacher assistant will be terminated or re-assigned to a vacant position he or she qualifies for if he or she does not possess a CDA by the Sept. 30 deadline.

In fact, anyone who works with children must have a CDA. This includes the cooks, whose titles will be changed, with added responsibilities.

At least 50 percent of all Head Start teachers nationwide must have a baccalaureate degree by Sept. 30, or an advanced degree with coursework related to early childhood education.

To meet this standard, NHS teachers must have an associate's degree, and be enrolled in a major with coursework related to early childhood education.

If a teacher does not meet the qualifications by the deadline, he or she will either be relocated to a new position or let go.

An employee in a teaching position is expected to update his or her file by submitting paperwork to verify qualification. According to Singer, there is still time for employees to submit their documents, but they need to hurry.

Preserving independence

If the Navajo Nation is to continue to receive federal funding for NHS, and if it is to maintain authority over the program, it must demonstrate compliance not only with the Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act of 2007, but also with the Office of Head Start.

However, according to Singer, NHS has been found to be out of compliance with the standards set by the OHS since 2006.

Last year, on Oct. 1, OHS issued a letter assigning NHS to the Designated Renewal System, which Singer said essentially requires NHS to become fully compliant in all areas of the program. If NHS fails to become compliant in one area, the grant will go out for competition with other Head Start programs and the Navajo Nation will never again be eligible to receive uncontested funding.

NHS must establish school readiness goals, initiate an assessment program called CLASS, develop a structured classroom curriculum, and meet roughly 2,800 more requirements (not all of them by the upcoming deadline).

"To reorganize and to restructure, yes, there's a lot of change and change will be difficult. But we have to go forward. We can no longer be a program that is out of compliance, which Navajo Head Start has been since 2006," said Singer.

DoDE Principal Education Specialist Lamont Yazzie works within the NHS administrative staff and he has been working around the clock to ensure that the program meets all the required credentials.

"I usually leave, probably around 8 o'clock, but we've stayed at the office till 4:30 some mornings. Otherwise it would be close to midnight," said Yazzie.

If the Navajo Nation loses NHS the millions of dollars and decades of time invested into the program will be lost, and current NHS employees, including the 96 teachers, will all lose their jobs.

"I've committed myself totally to this program so it can be successful," said Singer. "I feel like it's all riding on us and if we fail, I basically failed the children of the Navajo Nation. And, no, even if I don't sleep till the very end, I'm going to do everything I can to help secure the program."