This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
OLJATO - Kami Teeasyatoh, 3, is already talking about getting on the school bus for the first time next fall, says her mother, Torrie Holliday.
But Kami might miss that bus - and the school readiness program awaiting her in the small settlement of Oljato, about 10 miles from Holliday's isolated home near Monument Valley.
The federal government last week abruptly closed 202 Head Start and Early Start centers on the Navajo Nation, which sprawls across Arizona, New Mexico and southeastern Utah.
A review by the Administration for Children and Families showed the Navajo Nation failed to check criminal records for hundreds of its Head Start and Early Start employees between 2001 and 2005, including some who had been convicted of murder, aggravated assault and child abuse.
Background checks done last October for 644 employees revealed 106 had criminal records, ACF Commissioner Joan Ohl said.
The federal team that visited the Navajo Nation last month also determined that no background checks had been done for about 200 other employees, and that there was no comprehensive system in place for checking employee backgrounds, Ohl said.
"We were very concerned, based upon viewing that, about the safety of children."
Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. is working with ACF officials to correct the problems, but Navajo parents are understandably concerned.
Holliday sent three of Kami's older siblings to the Oljato Head Start and wants Kami to go, too.
Her children need the extra preparation for school. Holliday needs the child care, too. She is taking business classes in an attempt to improve her job skills.
The teacher at the Oljato center has been there many years, Holliday said, and is patient and kind to the children.
"I'm just hoping they resolve the issues by this fall."
Shirley met with ACF officials in Washington, D.C., on Monday to question some of their findings, said Patrick Sandoval, Shirley's chief of staff.
The president also presented a corrective action plan calling for appointment of a task force and new procedures for complying with criminal background regulations.
The remedies were enough to convince the ACF to release $413,000 to enable the Navajo Nation to properly shut down Head Start centers for the summer.
The tribal government hopes to have the suspension lifted within 30 days.
Ohl said her office's priority is correcting problems in the Early Start program, which serves mothers and children younger than 3, and operates year-round.
The suspension could be partially lifted for the Early Start program as soon as Monday, Ohl said, based on results of checks on 17 employees. But resuscitating the massive Head Start program will be more complicated. The program, which was scheduled to start its summer break today, has an annual budget of $27 million, employs more than 800 people and serves 4,100 3- to 5-year-olds.
Ohl did not say when or if the Head Start and Early Start programs will be allowed to completely reopen, but said the tribal government is working hard to solve problems.
Everett Thompson hopes the centers reopen with reforms that persist.
He takes his grandchildren to the Aneth Head Start center, and said the program has a history of problems, including high employee turnover and lack of community support. Thompson knows of at least one employee who was forced to resign because of background problems, but was teaching in the system again soon after.
The dual involvement of the federal and tribal governments adds up to a disorganized system, according to Thompson. "It gets all corrupted," he said.
But others in the area, like Holliday, praise the Head Start program.
Rebecca Benally, vice president of the Navajo Nation's newly appointed Board of Education, believes Head Start programs meet essential needs.
The days when children of the reservation spoke Navajo as their first language are long gone, Benally said. English is the first language for nearly all of today's Navajo children. But learning the language in early childhood is often limited because so many homes in the Navajo Nation are plagued by poverty and illiteracy, she said.
"Head Start is too valuable to Navajo children for the program to go away," Benally said. "If it means restructuring, or new personnel, that's what we need to do."
People living outside the Navajo Nation don't realize the challenges of providing services, added Darlene Valentine, a language intervention specialist for San Juan School District's special education program. She doesn't condone the tribal government's laxity in doing background checks for on Head Start personnel, but understands how such things can happen.
Jobs with Head Start don't pay well, and they require post-high school education - at least associate degrees for teachers, Valentine said. Job conditions are difficult and often disheartening.
Valentine's own job with San Juan School District involves solitary travel over huge distances on dangerous roads. Many families she visits appreciate her work, but some fail to build upon her efforts to increase literacy in their homes.
Then, there are the never-ending forms to fill out. Programs on the reservation are hampered by a double layer of paper work - tribal and federal, Valentine said. Sometimes, just keeping programs staffed and running so that they can provide services for children seems miraculous enough.
"I can see how some things don't get done," she said.
Sandoval emphasized that background checks are getting done now, and said Navajo Nation's Head Start and Early Start programs will be rescued soon.
"President Shirley says that a Navajo child's life begins at birth, and every bit of that child's environment Ð family, friends and the educational system Ð influences whether or not that child is successful," he said. "We know that early childhood development is of utmost importance. The president wants these programs back up and running as soon as possible."
The federal Administration for Children and Families shut down 202 Head Start and Early Start centers on the Navajo Nation after an investigation found the tribal government was not doing employee background checks and convicted felons were working in some of the centers.
* What's new: Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley met with ACF officials this week and is implementing plans he hopes will get the suspension lifted within 30 days.
* What's next: The ACF will work first to get background checks completed and reopen Early Start, which operates year-round.