Etta Shirley: Building foundations for success for Arizona’s Native American students
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Etta Shirley: Building foundations for success for Native American students

Etta Shirley HP

An early childhood education program for Native American students highlighted in a recent national report on minority student outcomes is increasing Arizona students’ success.

The evidence-based Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Family and Child Education program, offered in 45 BIE schools nationwide, has narrowed the reading and math achievement gap for Native American children, according to the recently released Annie E. Casey Foundation report Race for Results: Building a Path to Opportunity for All Children.

Etta Shirley: Building foundations for success for Native American students EttaShirleyInside

As parents become more involved in the Family and Child Education program they’ve learned to work with their child’s teacher to “become a team to help their child,” said Etta Shirley, a FACE program coordinator and principal of Little Singer Community School in Winslow. Photo courtesy of Little Singer Community School

As parents become more involved in the FACE program they’ve learned to work with their child’s teacher to “become a team to help their child,” said Etta Shirley, a FACE program coordinator and principal of Little Singer Community School in Winslow.

“They understand how important doing your homework is, and how important a grade is,” Shirley said.

The program is critical, because Arizona’s 69,398 Native American students, about 7.29 percent of all Arizona students, are performing far below other minority students in the state and around the country, the Race for Results report noted.

The FACE program supports parents at their child’s first and most influential teacher, increases family literacy, strengthens family-school-community connections, promotes early identification of children with special needs, celebrates the culture and language of each Native American community and promotes life-long learning.

FACE helps parents prepare their children to enter kindergarten ready to learn and read at grade level by the end of third grade through its four components  – early childhood education, adult and parent education, home-based training, and parent-as-teacher training at a center.

Shirley recently spoke about the FACE program at a U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee oversight hearing on early childhood development and education among Native Americans.

“There are so many benefits in the program,” Shirley said. “The reason why we packed up and went to Washington is we wanted to share that. It’s a really good program. It’s probably one of the best that has come across in years.”

In addition to boosting children’s learning, the program has also helped parents develop a support group, connect with local resources, and instill the importance of education in their older children, Shirley said.

“It’s very evident that it really cut down on domestic violence in the home. It cut down on abuse of alcohol. It cut down on the number of students in the upper grades with attendance problems,” Shirley said.

Q: During this Week of the Young Child, which focuses on the needs of young children and their families, the Annie E. Casey Foundation has recognized Family and Child Education as a program that meets those needs. How does FACE help parents help prepare their children for school?

A: Basically, there are four components to the FACE program. There’s early childhood, there’s adult education, there’s parent time, and there’s parent and child together time.

What happens during the parent and child time is that the child describes the activity or lesson that he or she wants to do. The parent follows the child and asks the child questions about what they’re doing.

It actually helps the parent to understand that they are a big part of educating their child. That happens every day for a whole hour. Then they come back together in a circle and they debrief on what they’ve done every day.

During parent time, the kids are in their own classrooms and parents have their own time. That’s where the parents all discuss what was really hard about the child-led activity that they did. Then they work together to find resources to make it even better. They’re building a support group among the adults so that way they can reflect back and help each other.

If you take one of the four components out, it can’t work. All four components work together.

Q: Is FACE connected with preschool and other programs in your school district that children eventually will be a part of?

A: Yes, at our school our FACE program extends into K through 3rd grade. The parents still work with their child’s teacher and have Parent and Child Together Time all the way to third grade.

Q: What have parents and teachers told you they appreciate most about FACE?

A: Parents appreciate the very strong support of the staff, their peers and other adults. They have a strong support from the staff in educating their child.

If the child is having problems, no one just stands around. They all meet every single day to reflect on yesterday and today how is it going to be. We also work with them. The staff does a referral to the nearby school district, which in our case is Winslow, for any special needs.

We have two staff members who do parent educating. They go out into the field, and each carry 24 families. They start working with the family when the mother is carrying the baby and continue to work with them until the children 3 years old. At age 3, the students become center-based. The Moms appreciate the strong support.

Teachers appreciate the preschool and kindergartners coming to them being ready to learn. The children know their ABCs and numbers. They know their sounds. They’re very social and expressive. They’re ready.

You can really see a difference in the children who went through FACE and those who did not. The kids who went through FACE are way better prepared to come into the classroom. Those students are very ready for independent work.

Q: How will working with the Navajo Nation’s Health, Education, and Human Services Committee help FACE expand in Arizona?

A: There was talk about wanting to remove the adult education portion of the program, but we didn’t want that.

We want the whole, four components, so we went to the Navajo Nation‘s Health, Education and Human Services and we requested their support in ensuring the FACE program continues with the four components.

There are 23 FACE sites on Navajo land.

The Health, Education and Human Services committee they really want to embed the Navajo language and culture strongly in the FACE program.

We’re already doing that, but they want more so the little ones can really start talking Navajo.