By Heidi Toth
NAU Communications

The data are clear: young children taught in ways that reflect and highlight their heritage respond better to what they’re learning.

For Native American children, that means having teachers who are educated in best practices and an appreciation for and understanding of Native American people, cultures and nations. A collaborative program at Northern Arizona University will do just that.

A $500,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation—the first grant NAU has earned from the philanthropic organization—is funding Building Tribal Early Childhood Education Capacity, a program that further advances pedagogy relevant to the Native American tribes in northern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico. Chad Hamill, vice president for the Office of Native American Initiatives (ONAI), and Pamela Powell, associate professor and chair of the Department of Teaching and Learning in the College of Education (COE), are the co-principal investigators for the program.

“NAU recognizes how important a solid educational foundation is for students to succeed at the university level and in their careers, and we are committed to partnering with Native Americans tribes in our region to ensure they have access to the same opportunities,” NAU President Rita Cheng said. “We are proud to have the support of the Kellogg Foundation and the partnership of the Navajo and Zuni people in this important work.”

This program will strengthen early childhood education in communities within the Navajo and Zuni nations through culturally relevant practices. It aligns with current early childhood programs in COE and efforts on the part of ONAI to be a national leader in serving native communities.

“The achievement gap for Native American students is wider than that of any other group,” Hamill said. “By strengthening early childhood experiences and continuing to work with K-12 teachers through our institute, we can close that gap before it begins. This will ensure that more Native American students are prepared for post-secondary education, increasing retention and graduation rates.”

Other collaborators are Geraldine Garrity, chairwoman of the Center for Diné Teacher Education; Hayes Lewis, director of A:shiwi College in New Mexico; Elmer Guy, president of Navajo Technical University; Louise Lockard, a professor in NAU’s bilingual/multicultural education program; and Lorenzo Max, an elder and cultural adviser in ONAI at NAU.

“Because this grant focuses on early childhood (birth through grade three), culturally responsive and respectful pedagogy can be offered to our youngest children, infusing and honoring them with their rich language and culture as a basis for learning,” Powell said.

NAU has the capacity and relationships across Arizona’s community colleges, tribal communities and tribal colleges to expand partnerships to support existing tribal early education programs and to increase and prepare an effective teacher pipeline serving Native American schools and communities in the region. This program will help support not only university students but also much younger children, who then will have a greater likelihood of success in college and beyond.

“This program will stand apart from early childhood education programs at other universities because of its emphasis on interinstitutional collaboration with tribal colleges,” Hamill said. “Tribal colleges specialize in providing a localized, culturally grounded education that strengthens identity and accelerates learning among tribal members. Studies clearly demonstrate that students who recognize themselves in curricula are more invested in learning.”

About the W.K. Kellogg Foundation

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation, founded in 1930 as an independent, private foundation by breakfast cereal pioneer Will Keith Kellogg, is one of the largest philanthropic foundations in the United States. Guided by the belief that all children should have an equal opportunity to thrive, WKKF works with communities to create conditions for vulnerable children so they can realize their full potential in school, work and life.

The Kellogg Foundation is based in Battle Creek, Michigan, and works throughout the United States and internationally, as well as with sovereign tribes. Special emphasis is paid to priority place with high concentration of poverty or where children face significant barriers to success. For more information, visit