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ASU brings degrees to Gila River Indian Community

Gila River students in class
October 02, 2014

Individuals who work with young children on the Gila River Indian Community are earning their bachelor’s degrees without having to commute to metro Phoenix, thanks to a program involving Arizona State University’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, School of Social Transformation and Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

The GRE2ATE program (Gila River Early Educators Attaining Teaching Excellence) is bringing New College’s interdisciplinary arts and sciences degree to Head Start and Early Education teachers and teacher assistants. The students take evening classes at a Gila River elementary school.

“GRE2ATE gives us the opportunity to obtain our bachelor’s degrees while we continue working at our places of employment,” said Pamela Lucero, a member of the inaugural GRE2ATE cohort, which began its work in the spring of 2013 and whose students are scheduled to graduate next year. “The program is convenient for us to learn within our own community and atmosphere, which promotes success for our people.”

Lucero and the other members of her cohort are pursuing a concentration in early childhood education as part of their New College bachelor of arts degree program. The early childhood classes are provided by Teachers College.

Funding for the first GRE2ATE cohort came from a $1.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Indian Education. The grant was awarded to ASU’s Center for Indian Education, part of the School of Social Transformation. The project is a joint partnership between ASU and the Gila River Indian Community’s Tribal Education Department.

“For someone such as myself to be able to accomplish a lifelong goal to become a teacher, I feel I am blessed,” said Reynalda James, another member of the first cohort. “I am grateful to be able to get a degree in the field I have a passion for, here on the Gila River Indian Community.”

Shari Collins is among the professors who have been impressed by the passion of the GRE2ATE students. Collins, who teaches classes for New College’s School of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies, traveled to Gila River to teach an eco-community ethics course.

“GRE2ATE is an innovative partnership that brings the strengths of New College programs to American Indian students, and builds strong relationships with American Indian communities,” Collins said. “As a professor I enjoyed bright and engaged students who excelled at the application of theory, and who brought new perspectives to my teaching.”

The ability of GRE2ATE participants to excel in challenging university coursework comes as no surprise to Deborah Chadwick, project director from ASU’s Center for Indian Education. She previously worked for eight years as an educator within the Gila River Indian Community.

“GRE2ATE was developed to address improving American Indian/Alaskan Native early childhood programs to be staffed by teachers who are professionally prepared and highly qualified, especially those teachers of preschool-age children who will be entering kindergarten ready to achieve educational excellence,” Chadwick explained. “The collaboration with New College's interdisciplinary arts and sciences program has been positive in developing a program of study that is building strong early childhood education skills while emphasizing cultural relevance and language revitalization through community involvement. Factors contributing to student success include being in a cohort with others from their work and/or community and the academic support given to each one individually by the program’s academic mentor.”

Support from her fellow students is a key positive factor for student Anna “Ame” Edwards. “I have a wonderful group of people who have chosen the same profession as myself, and we all have the same common goal, which is to better ourselves by acquiring our bachelor’s degree,” she said. “We have our ups and downs, and work/life stresses, but we are always there to support each other.”

The second cohort of Gila River Indian Community students began their ASU coursework in August. This group also will pursue a New College degree in interdisciplinary arts and sciences. Their degree concentration will be in Indian education, with concentration classes provided by ASU’s School of Social Transformation. “Many of these students will teach language and culture studies on the reservation,” said Cathy Kerrey, director of academic services for New College.

The second cohort’s program also has been designed to let students transition seamlessly into a master’s program, Kerrey says. “A unique aspect of this program is that it’s a ‘4+1’ format, so students will receive their bachelor’s degree and then complete their master’s in 18 credits. The master’s is New College’s master of arts in interdisciplinary studies, also with a concentration in Indian education.”

Kerrey credits the support of administrators for the success of ASU’s partnerships with the Gila River Indian Community. “Dean Marlene Tromp of New College and Bryan Brayboy, director of the Center for Indian Education, have been heavily involved in the process of bringing the program together,” she said. “We also have a great working relationship with Mario Molina, director of the Tribal Education Department, and other staff and faculty members in the Gila River Indian Community.”

Ultimately the partnership will increase the number of highly educated teachers who are from the local community.

“This is important because it adds to the pool of teachers who know their children, are best likely to understand the community’s educational needs, and are less likely to leave the community,” Chadwick said. “The program is adding to the pool of highly qualified early childhood teachers without pulling these important educators away from the preschools and children who rely on them. We are extremely pleased to be continuing this partnership beyond the life of the grant, and helping the community build teacher capacity. And the second cohort of students will be prepared to serve their communities through teaching language and culture studies, as they receive tribal certification.”