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$5.6 million grant drives ASU early literacy initiative

December 14, 2009

A $5.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education will support Arizona State University in driving a three-year Early Reading First research initiative and community collaborative designed to boost literacy among 280 preschool children in nine schools in northwest New Mexico on the majestic Navajo Nation.

Early literacy, experts say, can be an antidote to academic failure, a critical problem among Native Americans, where the dropout rate is three times that of U.S. students and highest of any U.S. ethnic group, fallout from enduring poverty and high unemployment.

The federal Early Reading First grant awarded this fall to the Southwest Institute for Children and Families (SWI) will fund Pump Up the Volume in Preschool, a partnership of the Gallup McKinley County Schools, Navajo Department of Diné Education, SWI and ASU. Professors James Christie, with the Mary Lou Fulton Institute and Graduate School of Education, and Jay Blanchard, with the College of Teacher Education and Leadership, will oversee the project as its principal and co-principal investigators respectively. The ASU portion of the grant award is $767,665.

“The goal is simple,” Blanchard said. “The project aims to ensure that Navajo preschool children enter kindergarten with the literacy skills needed to have a successful first year of school.”

Karen Burstein and Catherine Otto, former ASU professors, have re-teamed with Christie and Blanchard to manage the project designed to rapidly increase the amount and quality of early literacy education within nine preschool sites on the Navajo Nation in northwest New Mexico.

Burstein, who assesses the preschoolers’ progress, said data shows that children in Early Reading First programs do well on standardized tests and enter kindergarten with improved language and literacy skills. 

Additional project collaborators include well-respected tribal members, including Genevieve Jackson, a former educator and president of the Gallup-McKinley County Board of Education, and Jenny Rogers, of the tribe’s health department. Rodgers was formerly Director of Diné Education and worked with Blanchard, Christie and Burstein on the Navajo Early Education Partnership project with Navajo Head Start teachers.

“Navajo children by virtue of many social problems tend to be high risk for future learning difficulties," said Burstein, founder of the nonprofit SWI, which has received $16 million in grant funding since 2002 to improve early literacy for high-risk children. “This is new project will hopefully enhance the lives of children and teachers in rural Navajo communities.” 

The project's goals are to increase early literacy skills of Navajo children by using strategies and materials that reflect the traditions, experiences and cultures of the children served. The ASU researchers seek to accomplish this by implementing a multi-strategy approach that emphasizes:

• Intensive professional development and coaching for local preschool teachers by master teachers;

• Curriculum enriched by play and activities celebrating Navajo language and customs;

• Extensive language acquisition for all children including special support for English Language Learners;

• Age-appropriate instruction on key early literacy skills (vocabulary, phonological awareness, alphabet knowledge and conventions of print);

• Monitoring children’s progress and delivering interventions for children struggling to master the basic curriculum; and

• Family engagement, including literacy nights where parents and children read, write and play games together. 

When classes begin in January, the preschoolers will be introduced to the Bright Futures curriculum, a commercially published early literacy program with books, activities, charts, manipulatives and alphabet cards.

“We have structured the curriculum so that children will have fun and learn important literacy skills at the same time,” said Christie, a strong advocate of classroom play. The children will spend a considerable amount of time in colorful learning centers that teach content knowledge about a number of interesting themes, including building and construction, the five senses, city and country life, the season, etc. Additionally, Christie said the curriculum will be enriched by books that are culturally significant and reflect Navajo customs and traditions.

Family literacy is another important component of the program, so parents will be invited to family literacy nights where they will read, play games, practice the alphabet and write stories, and take home new books.

“This helps the parents learn the value of emergent reading and writing,” Christie said. “If we give the kids a state-of-the art preschool program, we can ensure that they will enter kindergarten ready to learn and succeed. That is our purpose.”

The Navajo Nation is familiar territory to Christie, Blanchard and Burstein. Soon after they began their partnership in 2003 with a $3.5 million Early Reading First project in Somerton and San Luis, near the Mexican border, they received a $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to inform Navajo Head Start instructors about new methods for teaching early literacy.

Since then, the team’s commitment to high-risk rural children has taken them to Bullhead City, Mohave Valley and the Fort Mohave Indian Nation along the Colorado River, where they are currently engaged in another Early Reading First project.

“It has been very rewarding to help improve the education of children in these remote, rural locations,” Christie said.

Carol Sowers,
(602) 524-4443
Mary Lou Fulton Institute