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Struggling Navajo Head Start program on rebound

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — 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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