Jemez Pueblo, New Mexico - On a recent Thursday morning, a classroom full of preschoolers line up for their daily ritual: a prayer in the morning sun. The children quietly file outside on the Jemez Pueblo, a tribal community located an hour northwest of Albuquerque, and pray for a good day of learning.
It’s merely the start of a typical day at an atypical preschool. Here at Walatowa Head Start, the program conducts all its classes entirely in Towa (or Jemez), the Jemez Tribe’s Native language.
Eight teachers work closely with cultural and traditional advisors on the reservation to teach lessons to 68 students. As with all Head Start sites, enrolled children come from predominantly low-income families and the program adheres to federal standards for early childhood curriculum.
Later in the day, a traditional leader tells students about their ancestral hunting games and songs, and a local artisan teaches them how to paint pottery. There are lessons on vocabulary and outdoor activity where students learn to play a tribal stick-and-ball game.
The innovative curriculum was developed to foster early childhood development while also teaching children about their people and tribe, according to Lana Toya, the program’s early childhood manager.
“I’m proud of what we’ve done and know I am where I’m supposed to be,” said Toya, who was recently recognized by President Barack Obama as one of the top educators of the year. “When I hear from family and community members about how much children are learning and speaking [Towa] at home, it makes me believe in this program.”
Walatowa Head Start opened on the Jemez reservation in 1967. For decades, the program included some language and cultural components but these were not fully integrated until a 2006 language survey showed Towa proficiency for the first time was starting to decline among younger generations.
A year later, Dr. Eunice Romero Little, an associate professor of indigenous language education at Arizona State University, approached the tribe about conducting a linguistics study to identify how the Jemez fostered language development among their children.
With the Tribal Council’s green light, Little in 2009 launched Photovoice, a research project involving eight parents of the program’s students. Each parent was given a camera and asked to take photos guided by three questions: What should Jemez children learn in order to be Jemez? How do they learn these things? How does Head Start support or not support this learning?
From the 467 photos parents took, Little, together with the parents, selected 25 images that captured recurring themes and concepts. Not only were Jemez children culturally aware and receptive at the earliest ages, she found, but their learning also was essential to maintaining the tribe’s way of life.
While many tribal communities around the country had experienced significant language loss, the Jemez had largely maintained their oral-only language through deliberate efforts to pass it down to each generation. The Jemez people also relied on the early years as a time to socialize children in Towa to the traditions they would later carry on as adults.
Little’s research inspired the tribe to look more intentionally at Walatowa Head Start as an opportunity to prepare the next generation to become contributing members of Jemez society, said Kevin Shendo, Jemez education director.
While the tribe had relied on families to foster children’s language and cultural proficiency in the past, they found that parents’ busy work schedules had made it increasingly harder to do so, he added. Moreover, children were becoming reliant on technological devices that used only English – to the detriment of Towa.
With that in mind, the Tribal Council voted to shift the preschool program to full-immersion in Towa in late 2012. About a year later, the federal office of Head Start made an official commitment to allow any Head Start program to conduct classes in a Native language.
“A Jemez child who is grounded in our language and culture builds a sense of pride and identity that helps them as they grow up to become adults,” said Shendo of the transition. “We are proving that children who know who they are and the value of their contributions to our community can excel academically.”
Support by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF), among others, has helped create a Towa language curriculum for the program, rooted in Jemez values. It has also provided classroom materials, staff professional development and training for community members who teach cultural lessons. Instructors even took a recent trip to Hawaii to observe Hawaiian language instruction at immersion schools there.
The tribe now is planning to expand Towa instruction to three feeder schools, as well as develop language proficiency assessments and a program for parents.
While there was some initial concern over whether a Towa rather than English curriculum would give children the best foundation to start school, the community has also come to embrace the immersion program more broadly.
Marcus Wall said he was initially hesitant to enroll his 5-year-old daughter Vivian in the preschool. A local artist, Wall did not grow up on the reservation and does not speak Towa fluently. Yet seeing how important the language was to the community and to Vivian’s grandmother, he decided to take a chance.
Today, when he watches his daughter talk to her grandmother in Towa, he knows he made the right decision. Alongside Vivian, Wall is also familiarizing himself more with the language.
For other parents, like Jaime Loretto, Walatowa Head Start’s evolution has had special meaning. Loretto, who also attended the program as a child, appreciates his 5-year-old son Brayden’s very different experience today. It’s been a refresher for Loretto, who says he now hears Towa words he had forgotten or never learned.
“The program is progressing and we’re seeing the impact on the child, home, and our community,” said Loretto, an executive to the Jemez governor’s office. “My son is now part of reinforcing our tribe’s language and that’s a big deal. Our language is who we are as a people: if we lose it, we lose our identity.”