One Year In, Native American Students in Early Childhood Program Making an Impact in Tribal Schools

Colleen Locke | December 22, 2016
Reign Spears, part of the six-student cohort of the Native American Early Childhood Education Scholars Program, became a full-time student in summer 2015.

Reign Spears, part of the six-student cohort of the Native American Early Childhood Education Scholars Program, became a full-time student in summer 2015.
Image by: Colleen Locke



We're having immediate positive results for our children.



Native American Early Childhood Education Scholars Program a Pilot Program

By day Naomi Neptune is surrounded by the chatter of excited preschoolers at the Penobscot Indian Children's Center in Eastern Maine, where she works as a child support specialist. At night, the mother of three’s home in Indian Island turns into a classroom, as she does her homework for the online classes she’s taking through UMass Boston’s College of Education and Human Development.

Neptune is part of the six-student cohort of the Native American Early Childhood Education Scholars Program (NAECES), a pilot program that fully funds the students as they earn a bachelor’s degree in early childhood and education in inclusive settings. Students are able to complete classes on campus or in an online program.

The program aims to increase the number of highly qualified Native American early childhood educators and intervention specialists serving Native children.

“We're having immediate positive results for our children,” Neptune said.

An online discussion on classroom setup prompted her to implement a change she says has already made a big impact.

“Changing the classroom around helped them to better focus on the different things they are doing,” Neptune said.

The students have participated in a national American Indian Early Childhood Education conference in New Mexico. They also took a trip over the summer to the Plimoth Plantation, where they did a tour and saw a reading by Native writer and Mohegan Medicine Woman Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zoebel of her book, Wabanaki Blues.

Reign Spears, who worked as a lead teacher in Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Development Center in Mashantucket, Connecticut, prior to becoming a full-time student in summer 2015, says he’s also learning new skills and techniques to make improvements in the classroom.

“The way I was observing a child was I was looking at everything and writing everything down, which you don't need to do,” Spears said. “Now when I interact with kids I think about my classes and think of it from a different perspective--the best way I can help a child.”

The College of Education and Human Development and Institute for New England Native American Studies (INENAS) launched the program in spring 2015 to fulfill what J. Cedric Woods, the co-principal investigator of the grant and INENAS director, says is an immediate need for the eight American Indian-operated early childhood programs in the region.

“There were zero lead tribal teachers in these facilities with bachelor’s degrees,” Woods said. “That’s the gap. That’s the need. Here’s the need, here’s the tribal commitment to this, and here’s our resource. This is connecting university education directly to tribal priorities of need.”

Both Spears and Neptune have associate’s degrees, requirements for NAECES program. They’ll finish their UMass Boston classes this spring, and be observed in the field for a year before graduating in spring 2018.

“It’s an amazing program and I just think it's allowing students to have the early childhood knowledge as they work in their communities,” said program manager Lynne Mendes. “They all live on the reservations so they're really committed to their community.”

The $1,037,391 grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Indian Education is funded through 2018. Anne Douglass, the other principal investigator of the grant, says the goal is to reapply for the grant and increase the number of highly qualified Native American early childhood educators teaching Native young children in New England and beyond. 

“The cognitive, social, and emotional development of young children is impacted by the cultural context of their learning environment and research tells us that Native American children demonstrate improved child outcomes in culturally sensitive classrooms where teachers can help them connect to their identities and culture,” said Douglass, an associate professor of early education and care and the program director of the bachelor’s and post master’s certificate programs in early education and care.

Spears, meanwhile, is looking forward to earning his bachelor’s degree and going back to work.

“I'll have more experience and a better education and a better understanding of some of the things I was doing in the classroom,” he said.

About UMass Boston
The University of Massachusetts Boston is deeply rooted in the city's history, yet poised to address the challenges of the future. Recognized for innovative research, metropolitan Boston’s public university offers its diverse student population both an intimate learning environment and the rich experience of a great American city. UMass Boston’s 11 colleges and graduate schools serve nearly 17,000 students while engaging local and global constituents through academic programs, research centers, and public service. To learn more, visit www.umb.edu.

Tags: college of education and human development , institute for new england native american studies , native american early childhood education scholars

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