TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. announced the “Verna D. Thompson Early Childhood Education Act” on Tuesday, investing up to $40 million to replace seven existing Cherokee Nation Head Start centers with new facilities, upgrading others within the Cherokee Nation Reservation and undertaking a comprehensive review of all early childhood education services for Cherokee citizens.
Chief Hoskin announced the proposed legislation at the Cherokee Nation’s Head Start in Tahlequah, which started in 1978 and moved locations several times before setting up operations in 1991 in a former circle of Indian-built homes.
The Act will modernize facilities for thousands of children, predominantly Cherokee and from low income homes as young as six weeks to pre-school age who are learning vital cognitive, language, motor and social skills. Cherokee Nation serves students at its main campus in Tahlequah and in 65 other classrooms across the Cherokee Nation Reservation.
“Our partnership with the federal Head Start program has improved the education, health and general welfare of thousands of Cherokee families across the reservation,” said Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. “Since we started the program in 1978 we have received the highest of ratings by the United States Department of Health and Human Services evaluators and it’s high time we now build these programs modern, state-of-the art learning environments so our youngest of Cherokees - who rely on us for early learning - have all the tools they need to continue thriving.”
The Cherokee Nation serves about 880 children through all of its Head Start programs.
“This investment is about making sure our facilities match our high-quality curriculum,” said Verna Thompson, Cherokee Nation Director of Head Start.
Thompson has worked for Cherokee Nation and in early childhood for more than 37 years. Chief Hoskin named the Act after Thompson for her dedicated years of service to early learning in the Cherokee Nation.
Cherokee Nation Head Start Centers planned for construction are Tahlequah, Nowata, Kenwood, Jay, Cherry Tree in Stilwell, Redbird in Sallisaw, and Salina. The Head Start in Pryor that was previously in construction planning stages will also resume with further funding from the act.
Funding for the upgrades and new Head Start replacements will come from federal funding and limited general funds for planning.
Chief Hoskin, through the Act, will also analyze availability of early childhood education and other childcare services across the reservation through a report to the Council Speaker by the end of each fiscal year. The study will focus on, among other aspects of child care, Cherokee Nation’s Head Start and its separate Child Development Centers, focusing on potential expansion of services.
“The biennial report on early childhood education is as important as the funding in this proposed legislation. We must carefully study the needs of the Cherokee people with respect to child care and early childhood education and do our level best to expand services over time,” said Chief Hoskin.
“Early childhood education is critical and of a national interest,” Deputy Chief Bryan Warner said. “Our aging facilities were in need of repair and replacement and I’m glad to see this act enacted and our future protected.”
The Act’s lead sponsor, District 1 Tribal Councilor Rex Jordan, of Hulbert, praised the measure as a great investment.
“Serving as I do at an advisory capacity for our Head Start programs, I have seen first-hand the dedication of our Head Start staff. Their work is first class and they and the students deserve facilities that are first class. This legislation accomplishes that,” Jordan said.
The legislation will be considered by the Council of the Cherokee Nation at the committee level on September 26 and, if approved, will be considered for final approval by the Council in October.