Newswise — It is a crisp morning in mid-December and a chilly wind blows over the desolate West Texas/Mexico borderlands, a few miles from Eagle Pass and a two-hour drive from San Antonio.

Inside a meeting room on the Kickapoo Traditional Tribe of Texas (KTTT) reservation, a warm welcome awaits John Gasko, Ph.D., and his colleagues from The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston's Children's Learning Institute. The Houston contingent joins state lawmakers, superintendents, school board members, mayors from neighboring towns, educators, parents, children and a large contingent of tribal administrators and members, including Chairman of the Tribal Council Juan Garza, Jr.

All have come to honor the first Native American school to earn Texas School Ready! (TSR) Project certification, and according to the Tribal Council, this is the first time in history that a tribal-based early childhood center has achieved certification of any kind.

Among tribal parents attending the celebration is Cindy Salazar, whose 3-year-old son Larenz is a student in the Head Start classroom being certified. "Frankly, I've been surprised at everything he had learned in the new program - his colors, the alphabet - and I especially like the fact that this program also teaches our language and our traditions," Salazar said.

Marco Gloria, KTTT's Head Start director, said the drop-out rate among Kickapoo students has, historically, been as high as 96 percent. "When we initiated the Texas School Ready! Project, we immediately saw it was much more advanced and focused on core subjects that are vital to success in the classroom," Gloria explained. "We're now seeing how well our Kickapoo children are being prepared for their future journey while maintaining their language and traditions."

Margie Salazar, tribal registrar and one of the signers of the tribe's constitution, is also in the audience for the celebration and sees the Texas School Ready! Project certification of the tribe's Head Start classroom as an important step for her tribe.

"When I was a teenager, school wasn't a priority," Margie Salazar remembered. "Now I'm seeing younger parents getting really involved in their kids' education. When our children are better prepared in the Head Start classroom, it means they won't have as much difficulty and they'll be able to keep up with their class, whatever grade they're in."

Linking best practices with student outcomes, the Texas School Ready! Project recently completed its third round of certifications and now recognizes 2,100 classrooms statewide.

"The program here is unique because it honors the Kickapoo language and traditions while, at the same time, creating a rich learning environment through teacher resources, mentoring and research-based best practices," said Gasko, who serves as director of statewide initiatives for the Children's Learning Institute. "The goal of the Texas School Ready! Project, one of the largest pre-kindergarten education programs in the state, is to make sure every child is equipped to learn and able to excel throughout their educational experience...and we hope to offer this program to other Native American tribes."

Gasko added, "The real success lies with the people who commit themselves daily to work with the children and their families - passionate people who have allowed the success of this program to grow."

One of those individuals is Maria Ortiz, Texas School Ready! Project coordinator. "We were looking for classrooms to be part of the Texas School Ready! Project grant," she recalled. "When we spoke to the tribal administrators, they immediately wanted to be part of the program."

"We - myself and the two mentors who have worked with the tribe's Head Start teachers - realize that change is difficult and requires much in the way of hard work, but this tribe and these teachers have worked very hard and we are seeing many, many positive changes," Ortiz said.

These changes, she said, include a classroom of 20 Kickapoo children who are well-adjusted and now excel in math, science, language development, reading readiness and their tribal language and traditions.

Teachers now have lesson plans organized around the classroom's seven learning centers, where eager students are engaged in games, crafts and activities that achieve specific learning objectives while offering playful fun.

Around the colorful classroom, a variety of items are labeled in English, Kickapoo and Spanish. "These children are brought up in homes where Kickapoo is the first language or dual languages are taught. We're helping them with the Kickapoo language," Ortiz explained, "but they are also learning English and the performance standards, including phonics, reading, letter knowledge, mathematics and science as well as social and emotional development."

Assessments of children attending public school after leaving the reservation's Texas School Ready! Project already show positive results. "The Kickapoo children are scoring much higher in language development and literacy," Ortiz said. "Testing shows they have the knowledge to succeed and what they learn here stays with them."

"Formal education has never been a tradition of any Native American culture and, historically, Native American students have been behind academically," explained Don Spaulding, tribal administrator. "As recently as the 1990s, it was a matter of survival for our Kickapoo children to help their families on the farms or as migrant workers. Once we opened our casino (the only Indian casino that operates legally in Texas under the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act), it was possible for more Kickapoo children to regularly attend school."

Just this past year, the first student from the tribe earned a college degree and has returned to work in tribal administration. Seventeen more are attending college classes.

What impresses Spaulding most about the Texas School Ready! Project is the level of learning students achieve through the program and their preparedness to attend Eagle Pass public schools. "Our kids have a leg up on being ready," Spaulding said.

"We've had Head Start on the reservation since the 1980s, under the Texas Migrant Program," Spaulding explained. "The tribe took control in 2002 and in 2007 we researched the Texas School Ready! Project, decided it was good and got on board. Since we've embraced the TSR! approach, our Head Start kids are ready to learn and are much more advanced when they reach the school district."

Jesus Sanchez, superintendent of Eagle Pass Independent School District, praises the Texas School Ready! Project. "The academic instruction places a lot of emphasis on language development," the 35-year veteran educator said. "I'm happy this program has continued because it provides these students with a stronger background, which they have not had in the past, plus it ensures their initial success when they enroll in public school. We're starting to have more Kickapoo students graduate and we're definitely seeing more emphasis on education within the Kickapoo tribe."

Spaulding said, "We know the future is within our youth and if we want to operate using tribal members, educating our young people becomes a matter of survival for the Kickapoos."

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