Struggling Navajo Head Start program on rebound

By Felicia Fonseca, Associated Press | Posted - Jun. 11, 2014 at 9:11 p.m.

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FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — The Navajo Nation's Head Start program has weathered enrollment drops, decreased funding and a complete shutdown after a federal review found wide-ranging threats to children's safety. Now, it's on the rebound.

The tribe announced recently that it will receive a five-year non-competitive grant after fully passing federal reviews for the first time in two decades. The expected $125 million grant from the Administration for Children and Families would serve more than 2,100 children across the country's largest American Indian reservation.

"The Navajo Nation was on the verge of losing Head Start after years of noncompliance," said Sharon Henderson-Singer, who oversees the tribal Head Start program as assistant superintendent for the Department of Dine Education. "There was a major need of reform to bring the Head Start program into compliance."

The program has struggled to come up with policies for child safety, get qualified teachers and ensure potential employees undergo background checks, Henderson-Singer said. It hit a low point in 2006 when the federal government revoked funding after finding broken, jagged play equipment, dogs and horses on playgrounds and broken heaters in classrooms. A report also cited a lack of financial controls and found dozens of employees of the program with criminal records.

Funding slowly was reinstated as Navajo officials worked to correct the deficiencies. The threat of losing funding resurfaced in 2010 after a federal review found outstanding deficiencies and areas of non-compliance.

Representatives of the Administration for Children and Families conducted the most recent review in May and found that the tribe had met all of the 2,800 standards for federal head start programs, according to a letter sent to the tribe.

"A lot of it was establishing procedure and policies to make our program run more efficiently," Henderson-Singer said.

The federal agency did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

The Navajo Nation's Head Start is the largest American Indian program of its kind in the country. The program has served Navajo youths since 1965 and has about 450 employees, Henderson-Singer said. About 86 Head Start facilities are open on the reservation, and the tribe expects to open another 30 in August.

Navajo Nation Council Delegate Walter Phelps, who serves on a committee with oversight of Head Start, said he was encouraged to see the progress and share the news.

"Whatever way you look at it, the children benefit in the end," he said. "I think they can focus on the children now that the risk of losing funding has gone away and the constant scrutiny."

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Felicia Fonseca


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