Collaborating to bridge the gap

By Catalina Myers, University of Alaska Anchorage

UAA Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Development Hattie Harvey takes a moment to snap a photo with one of the Yup’ik Immersion Program instructors at the Cook Inlet Native Head Start.

Education is often viewed as the cornerstone to success, and education administrators often focus on ensuring middle and high school students graduate with diplomas in hand. But what is often overlooked, is what happens before a child steps into the classroom on that first day of kindergarten.

Hattie Harvey, an assistant professor of early childhood development in UAA’s College of Education is looking to help change that with preschoolers—specifically Alaska Native children.

Early last spring she applied for the university’s Selkregg Community Engagement & Service Learning Award to collaborate with Cook Inlet Native Head Start’s (CINHS) Yup’ik Immersion Program. Although she was a runner-up for this year’s award, she received a grant to help fund her project for the 2017–2018 school year through UAA’s Center for Community Engagement & Learning (CCEL), an on campus center connecting faculty and student engagement research projects with local organizations and businesses.

Collaborating with Cook Inlet Native Head Start

It isn’t the first time Harvey’s collaborated with UAA on a research project in the community, although, until now, most of her recent work has been with the Anchorage School District (ASD) preschool programs. This project is unique, she said, because it is the first time she’s broadened her scope, working with a national program—Head Start—and focusing on a specific program, CINHS’s Yup’ik Immersion Program.

Local and national research indicates that accessibility to quality early childhood care and education is imperative in creating a successful educational environment for children not only in the classroom, but in life.

“Given the accumulating evidence that high-quality early care and education has a significant impact on children’s later social and academic outcomes, it is imperative that efforts continue to strengthen the quality and accessibility of early childhood programs,” she wrote in her proposal.

According to a 2015 Thread and Alaska Early Childhood Coordinating Council survey, 41 percent of Alaska Native/American Indian families in Anchorage reported finding quality child care was a primary hardship, as well as accessibility and cost.

This sparked Harvey’s interest in collaborating with CINHS’s Yup’ik Immersion Program, which was developed to fill a need within the Alaska Native Head Start program to not only use the program’s nationally comprehensive education, health and nutrition instruction, but to also integrate Yup’ik heritage and culture into the overall program.

“If you look backwards, we know those high quality care environments really do set that stage, that foundation—so it’s really exciting that there’s an immersion program to support that home language,” Harvey said. “That really was my interest in learning further about their programming and what they’re doing here in Anchorage.”

A bulletin board in the Cook Inlet Native Head Start’s Yup’ik Immersion Program classroom uses words and visual representation to not only teach language skills, but to also instill a sense of cultural pride and heritage into their curriculum.

But she acknowledges the year-old program is not without its hurdles. There are many challenges and, according to Harvey, two of the main ones include finding qualified early childhood development professionals with the correct language skills, and working with households where the language spoken at school is often not what’s spoken at home. She said of the 18 families enrolled in the program, maybe seven speak Yup’ik in the home.

“For these families who really want to instill and support their young children to learn their cultural language, but don’t have the language themselves—there’s this gap,” said Harvey. “Part of the intention of this project is helping to provide materials at home for the families to reinforce—and even to start—learning the language themselves.”

Designing the program

Last spring Harvey began her research and proposal to apply for a grant through UAA’s CCEL to collaborate with CINHS’s Yup’ik Immersion Program. She spent the better half of the summer designing a one-year program, which began this fall. She’s had help from a handful of her early childhood education students some who are fluent in Yup’ik to create materials, such as picture books and materials for both children and parents to use in and out of the classroom.

“The students that I had this summer, they’re all early childhood education majors—I kind of gave them a little bit of room for creativity,” Harvey said.

One of her Yup’ik speaking students, Piiyuuk John, an elementary education major, created a YouTube video for parents to use as a resource when working on Yup’ik language skills themselves or with their children at home.

Harvey’s overall project focuses on four main goals: bridge the home-school Yup’ik language gap; provide the 18 families within the program with Family Engagement Nights; encourage Yup’ik literate learners to enroll in UAA’s College of Education program, ideally under the umbrella of early childhood development; and lastly, to assess the success of the project at the end of the school year with a family review survey.

But for Harvey, the biggest component is bridging the family-school gap. In her proposal she wrote that according to the Alaska Native Knowledge Network, “parents are considered the first teachers of their children and thus are critical for providing a supportive environment in which their heritage language and culture is embraced.”

Just the beginning…

Harvey is just getting started on her year-long project. It kicked off with the start of the school year and the program just hosted its first Collaborative Family Engagement night the first week of September. Harvey said that of the 18 families enrolled, 16 of the families participated in their first big event.

“The idea really is helping communicate and increase the family partnership so families can really support their kids at home with what’s happening in the classroom—and vice versa,” she said. “Opening up that line of communication.”

Harvey said she is encouraged so far by the openness of the program to partner with her and the university on such a lengthy project, and hopes that this is a stepping stone to incorporate more Alaska Native education, pride and language within early childhood education programs, not only in Anchorage, but statewide. She says there are fledgling programs popping up across the state and would love to see programs share resources so Alaska Native families have opportunities to instill their heritage, culture, values and language within the broader education system.

Opportunities with CCEL Learn more about getting involved, research and grant opportunities from UAA’s Center for Community Engagement & Learning. For more information, please contact Judith Owens-Manley, Center for Community Engagement & Learning, jowensmanley@alaska.edu or 786-4087.