Cherokees have long known that the first years of any child’s life should be spent in a nurturing and enriching environment to build the best possible foundation for their whole life to come. Our collective future is being written today by the investments we make in our youngest children. That’s why I am excited about Cherokee Nation’s aggressive new plan to help our youngest learners and their caregivers.
Cherokee Nation already serves almost 900 children through its Head Start programs, which were first started in 1978. Our tribal facilities are full of the best staff around, and they teach a first-class curriculum. We know the programming is regarded as among the best in the country; however, we have lacked the first-class facilities to house this instruction.
The Verna D. Thompson Early Childhood Education Act of 2021 will change that. This historic investment of $40 million will replace eight existing Cherokee Nation Head Start centers with new facilities and upgrade other learning sites within the Cherokee Nation Reservation. This act will modernize the tribe’s facilities for current students and the thousands of Cherokee youth who follow them.
Besides our main Head Start campus in Tahlequah, we operate 65 Head Start classrooms across the Cherokee Nation Reservation. Those aging facilities are also in need of repair and replacement. We plan to build new Cherokee Nation Head Start Centers in Tahlequah, Nowata, Kenwood, Jay, Cherry Tree in Stilwell, Redbird in Sallisaw, and Salina, along with a site in Pryor that is already in the construction planning stage.
Funding for the upgrades and new Head Start replacements is part of a $3.4 billion budget passed recently by the Council of the Cherokee Nation. It is the largest annual budget in the tribe’s history.
The Verna D. Thompson Act is named after Cherokee Nation’s Head Start Director Verna Thompson, who has worked for Cherokee Nation and in early childhood for more than 37 years. Her years of dedicated service to early learning in the Cherokee Nation are unparalleled. She’s approached her position not just as her job, but as a calling. You can see the fruits of her labor in thousands of families across the Cherokee Nation Reservation who have benefitted from Head Start.
Cherokee Nation’s Head Start students are predominantly Cherokee and from low-income homes. The ages range from as young as six weeks to preschool age. The children are taught cognitive, language, motor and social skills.
As part of the act, the Cherokee Nation also will make a comprehensive review of all early childhood education services for Cherokee citizens every other year, so we can identify any problems to fix or successes to expand on early. The first years of childhood go by quickly, so we must stay on top of what our children need.
We look to the Council to consider this legislation and give us any further feedback. My hope is that they pass it at next month’s meeting so that we can begin the process of planning and building as quickly as possible.
Our partnership with the federal Head Start program has improved the education, health and welfare of thousands of Cherokee families over the past 40 plus years. It’s time we now build state-of-the-art learning environments so our youngest Cherokees – who rely on us for early learning – have all the tools they need to continue thriving.
Chuck Hoskin Jr.