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Friendship, partnership and scholarship: COE doc students aim to help tribal communities

College has a way of bringing people together in interesting and unexpected ways, often resulting in new opportunities. Recognizing and seizing those opportunities when they arrive is a matter of experience, luck and a general openness to saying yes. "Opportunity" is a word that Jill Dolata and Allison Wilson use often when describing their work on two scholarly endeavors related to tribal communities, both of which resulted from being in the right place at the right time.

Both are doctoral students in Special Education at the College of Education. Allison is a Houston native who attended the University of Montana and worked as a teacher for a few years before moving to Oregon to pursue her doctorate. Jill is from Traverse City, Mich., and completed her master's in speech-language pathology at the University of Texas. Other than the Texas connection they didn't know each other or necessarily have much in common until they both took a Program Evaluation Methodology course sequence taught by CHiXapkaid (chee-HOP-kade), a.k.a. Michael Pavel, a former professor in Education Studies. The timing of the class happened to coincide with some studies CHiXapkaid was being asked to lead, so he asked Allison and Jill - both of whom had experience in early childhood education - to work with him. They jumped at the chance.

The first opportunity was to complete a study entitled “Dear Children: Preferred Preparation for Native Early Childhood Educators” addressing the issue of preparing early childhood educators to meet the needs of Native children, families and communities. It was requested by the Foundation for Early Learning, now continuing as Thrive by Five Washington, a program funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates and Boeing Foundations. The other involved a contract to complete a third-year program evaluation for the American Indian College Fund's Wakanyeja ("Sacred Little Ones") Early Childhood Education Initiative, funded by an $8 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Either would be impressive to see on the curriculum vitae of a current doctoral student, but together they resemble the work of someone much further along in their career. This fact is what CHiXapkaid finds most remarkable.

“The work Jill and Allison have done is exceptionally good, and the Dear Children report is already generating a lot of interest, in the Pacific Northwest and nationally,” said CHiXapkaid. “Both the American Indian College Fund and the Kellogg Foundation were very pleased with the third-year evaluation report we submitted. I'm incredibly proud of them, not just because of their research but because of the people they are. They're a credit to the College of Education and their profession.”

Tribal communities: Unique needs within a broader challenge
Tribal communities face growing challenges in terms of early childhood education (ECE). Recent changes to Head Start policies at the national level now require at least half the teachers in a program to hold a bachelor's degree; that means going back to school or being forced out of the field. If they choose the former, they become qualified to pursue any number of better-paying career opportunities, many of which lie outside their community. Other ECE programs, in tribal communities and elsewhere, face similar conundrums. Jill and Allison's challenge was to find ways to attract, retain and equip Native ECE teachers, and better understand how tribal communities are addressing these needs. Unique to tribal communities is the need to teach tribal legacy and heritage, instruction that only a Native instructor is equipped to deliver. Part of the concern with the new Head Start laws is that the pool of qualified Native instructors could shrink, a situation these communities hope to avoid through implementing some of Allison and Jill's recommendations.

Now that the Dear Children study and third-year evaluation report are completed, what happens next?

"That's a good question," says Allison with a laugh. 

For starters, the Dear Children study has been widely disseminated and will be presented at the Fifth American Indian/Indigenous Teacher Education Conference this July in Flagstaff, Ariz.; the Washington State’s Department of Early Learning Tribal Care and Education Conference; and the National Indian Head Start Director's Association management conference in Bloomington, Minn. Their preliminary findings have been well-received and it's very likely that elements of the study will inform future policies and programs around Native early childhood educators.

The American Indian College Fund received the Third Year Evaluation report with great enthusiasm, saying, “The report is lovely and represents the work of the Wakanyeja ECE Initiative in a beautiful light. The Fund is excited to share it with our funder, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and extended consultation for a fourth-year evaluation,” — a tantalizing option amid a shaky funding environment.

The chance to work on projects outside their sphere is something both women say is a strength of the College of Education. 

"My favorite thing about the program is the opportunity to be involved with projects outside standard coursework," Allison says. "While being in some of those classes can lead to projects like this, there are so many other opportunities because of the research hubs that are here and some of the work faculty are doing out in the community."

Jill echoes these sentiments, adding that the Eugene community has much to offer researchers like them.

"For people who are interested in educational and social-science research in general, Eugene is a hard place to beat," she says. "There are so many opportunities to be engaged in research across the depth of what the College of Education offers."